Absinthe, Opium, & Magic: 1920s Shanghai

1920s Shanghai is the setting of Debbie McMahon’s wonderfully environmental tour de force of clowning, dancing and blood, which evokes, with ferocious imagination, not just a bygone era but also the atmosphere of the Grand Guignol. Upon arrival at the theater, we are ushered into an ante-chamber outside the actual auditorium, which has been set up to resemble a Shanghai bazaar. There are sallow-eyed maidens serving tea — and also warm absinthe, strained through sugar, Thomas De Quincey–style. The scent of the absinthe wafts through the entire theater, melding with dry ice and creating a mood that elegantly mixes pleasure and decay. The play’s first act, “Sing Song Girl Sings Last Song,” is a haunting ballet of despair, involving a cast that includes jaded “Sing Song Girl” prostitute Bright Pearl (Tina Van Berckelaer), a young virgin protégé (Amanda Street) who dreams of becoming Top Whore, and calculating Madame Old Bustard (Dinah Steward), who plots to sell the virgin to be raped and mutilated by a piglike mobster (Roy Starr). Anchored by Jeanne Simpson’s pleasingly melodramatic choreography, the dance tackles a compelling story of rage, despair and vice. Steward’s charmingly sinister Old Bustard steals every scene she’s in — but Street’s scheming, loathsome virgin is a standout as well. Act 2’s vignette, Chris Bell’s “The Cabinet of Hands,” is a gripping horror tale, with a sharp twist of quirky humor. A prissy young French couple (Robin Long and Zachary Foulkes), vacationing in Shanghai, gets more than they bargain for when they go slumming at the opium den owned by a seemingly kind old woman (Kevin Dulude). As the thrill-seeking Westerners get happily stoned on The Dragon’s Tail, the old woman’s diabolical true nature shows through. The final scene consists of a jaw-dropping gorefest that will have you simultaneously howling with terror and laughter (while slipping your hands in your pockets for safekeeping). Dulude’s wicked old woman is the perfect embodiment of mysterious evil — and the horrific fate of Long’s ill-fated naif hilariously suggests an anti-drug teaching moment that’s very effective. Art/Works Theatre, 6569 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; check Web site for added perfs; through Jan. 3. brownpapertickets.com/Grand Guignolers and [via] Corpora Performance R& D House production.
Fridays, Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. Starts: Nov. 28. Continues through Feb. 7, 2009


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