Gregory G. H. Rihn (milwaukeesfs) wrote,
Gregory G. H. Rihn

Off the Wall Theatre, “Grand Guignol”

On Sunday, November 8th, we went to Off the Wall Theater for “Grand Guignol,” a program of four short plays inspired by, or adapted from, works performed at the notorious Parisian theatre of horrors during its long run from the 1880’s to the 1960’s.

Producer Dale Gutzman, who also appeared in one of the segments, gave some entertaining historical context as an introduction to each piece.

The first, “Clowning Around,” contains all the elements of a classic Grand Guignol play: it is short, punchy, includes a surprising twist, and a rather grisly special effect (although it must be said that Off the Wall’s effects relied more on sleight-of-hand than grue, and were surprisingly light on gore). It also showed how easily updated some of the stories could be: the play’s opening scene, a man in clown make up painting pictures of clowns, gets an added frisson because the modern audience knows who John Wayne Gacy was.

“The Final Torture,” set in 1901 China during the height of the Boxer Rebellion, is more of a period piece, but one could visualize modern-day situations where the kind of horrid choice forced upon the commander of a besieged French enclave might still reoccur. In this one, the coming “twist” was obvious, but the horror is in the psychological agony that leads up to it.

“The Kiss,” a 1913 piece dealing with a horribly disfigured man confronting the woman responsible for his injury, was perhaps the most chilling piece, as the injured man, Henri, (Max Williamson) plays out his anger toward his former fiancé. Mr. Williamson’s somewhat flattened affect in speaking made his voice a more effective instrument as he transitions from a pitiable invalid to a monster of revenge.

The fourth segment, “Pagliacci,” was freely adapted by Mr. Gutzman after the Leoncavallo verisimo opera plot. For those not familiar, the story concerns a troupe of travelling commedia del’arte actors. The troupe’s Columbine is the beautiful Nedda (Kirstin Roble), wife to Canio (Jeremy C. Welter). Nedda has unwillingly inflamed the desires of the gross clown Tonio (Lawrence K. Lukasavage), and less unwillingly, those of the handsome young Beppe (Patrick McCann), who plays Harlequin in the troupe. However, she has given her heart to Silvio (Henry Hammond), a stalwart stagehand.

Spurned by Nedda, Tonio spies upon her and sees her rendezvous with Silvio, although he does not see Silvio’s face. He rushes to fetch Canio. The two interrupt the liaison, but Silvio flees without being identified. Nedda refuses to give her lover up, despite Canio’s rage.

The troupe has attracted a full house, so the show must go on. Seething, Canio prepares. In his version of the famous Veste la giubba (“Put on your costume”) aria, Canio struggles with himself, asking, how can he go on when he is so tortured. “Are you not a man?” he asks. The reply is, “No, you are an actor, and the audience has paid to see you play.”

The play is an infidelity farce wherein Columbine is cuckolding “Pagliacci” (Canio) with Harlequin. Canio is barely holding himself in check when Tonio recognizes Silvio in the audience by his voice. In the resulting melee, Canio knifes Silvio and Beppe, strangles Nedda, and stalks out of the theatre declaring, “I am justice!” Tonio, left on stage cries, “The play is over!”

The real tension in this segment came at the crisis, when Nedda and Beppe appeal to the audience for help. We, as an audience, know we ought not interfere, but one does wonder how much one ought to interact--. As it was, the audience did nothing, we only watched, as the horrified audience members do in the opera.

In his director’s notes, Mr. Gutzman allows that the plots are slight and shallow. However, that doesn’t mean that they can’t be a vehicle for some very good acting, with James Feeley in “Clowning Around” and Mr. Welter in “Pagliacci” being particularly good, in addition to the aforementioned Mr. Williamson. Jocelyn Ridgely, in “The Kiss” was a good match for Williamson.

And of course, the plays are violent: in ninety minutes of theatre, we had seven stabbings (eight if you count impaling a man’s arm with a hatpin), two strangulations, and a vitriol-throwing, all of which were relatively tastefully done. And, we observed, most of the victims “had it coming,” following the sense of justice of the melodrama that was Grand Guignol’s forbear.

We enjoyed this performance. There was horror, but not too much horror to be likable.

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