The Glorious Century, a period of unprecedented peace across all Europe was at a close. As that gilded, moribund age ended, Le Théâtre du Grand Guignol began on a stage tucked deeply in a back alley of Paris’ Pigalle quarter.
Its founder and first director, Oscar Méténier, intended it as an act of defiance hurled in the face of the regurgitated mountings of fossilized “classics” and vapid entertainment fare then in vogue.
What they called “theatre” he denounced as an ossuary, so Méténier would gorge them with the dead from his stage.
He would rub in the audience’s faces the criminals, the diseased, the destitute they ignored.
He would show them the rot of poverty and madness that their society bred.
Among his shows were:
Le Baiser dans la nuit – A man, his face hideously burnt by acid, avenges himself on the woman who threw it on him.
In Un Crime dans une Maison de Fous – Two asylum inmates spitefully blind a third with scissors so she can never compare her beauty to their ugliness.
What struck me first about Madness! Murder! Mayhem!, playwright Colin Mitchell’s homage to the genre at (fittingly) Zombie Joe’s Underground, was the respect both he and director Jana Wimer showed to the Grand Guignol’s traditions, and their skillfulness in the staging them.
The three short pieces comprising Mitchell’s play are all meticulously and intelligently crafted.
At the Break of Day opens the evening with witty and wicked Lacazze (Ken MacFarlane) mentally torturing a younger inmate (Roland De Leon) newly put into his cell.
Taking inspiration from a Grand Guignol classic, L’Horrible Passion, by André de Lorde†, Mitchell’s Natasha presents a lowly housekeeper, Dorie (Jonica Patella), as the sole survivor of a murderous assault in which the three young children in her care were hideously slain. After the inquest, the Judge (Dale Sandlin) has her brought to his chambers, where a physician (playwright Mitchell) suggests a radical step in a last ditch effort to discover the killer’s identity.
Orgy in the Lighthouse brings on stage two staples of Grand Guignol; sex and gore. Bernard (Vincent Cusimano) a vigilant lighthouse keeper finds his duties impeded when the volatile Edmund (Alex Walters) arrives with two whores, Claire (Shayne Eastin) and Penelope (Jessica Madelaine) in tow to celebrate his reluctant friend’s birthday. Trust me things go badly before they get to the cake and ice cream.
This is not a parody or Grand Guignol-Lite, Mitchell has labored for authenticity to recreate for his audience that experience they might have found on opening night in 1897.
Director Wimer is up to the task of meeting Mitchell’s demands as well as addressing the more problematic aspects of the venue, displaying a keen sense of pacing and an artistic eye for the interplay of light and shadow.
Both Wimer and Mitchell are fortunate in having a solid, capable and talented cast across the boards.
Ken MacFarlane is delightfully demented as the torturer of his fellow inmate in the opening piece.
As Dorie, the pathetic survivor of a home invasion massacre in Natasha, Patella skillfully takes us down a strange and ultimately disturbing path. Mitchell as the intrusive doctor displays the needed chops to deftly traverse the tightrope between absurdity and atrocity while chewing the scenery with such delicious abandon the audience is tempted to ask for a slice.
Cusimano and Walters in Orgy in the Lighthouse end the evening on a high note of Mayhem, while Eastin successfully plucks smiles and sympathy from the audience.
In 1962, Le Théâtre du Grand Guignol closed its doors, perhaps assuming the imaginary terrors of its stage unequal to those discovered at Dachau or threatened by the Cold War.
But Méténier’s theatre lived on in the movies of Hammer Studios and films like What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
Rod Serling first brought to television the style and sensibilities of The Theatre of the Big Puppet, which continued on through the brilliant The League of Gentlemen♦ and can currently be found on Showtime’s Penny Dreadful.
So, if you’re a fan of The Twilight Zone, a serious student of theatre, or just someone who gets off on slasher flicks, Madness! Murder! Mayhem! is right up your alley. Your dark, dismal and foreboding alley that is.
♦ ♦ ♦
† De Lorde one of the primary playwrights for the theatre, often sought out help with the psychological aspects from Alfred Binet, the French psychologist best known for the Binet-Simon Scale, the original “intelligence test.”
♦ No, not that Sean Connery stinko! That was The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen!
I’m talking The League of Gentlemen Christ, just do yourself a favor, Google it, watch it.
(LEAD IMAGE: (L to R) Colin Mitchell, Jonica Patella, Dale Sandlin – Image Courtesy of Zombi Joe’s Underground)
“MADNESS! MURDER! MAYHEM!” plays on FRIDAYS @ 8:30pm, thru JULY 31.
Tickets are $15 – For Reservations Call: 818-202-4120
Advance Tix Now on Sale at ZombieJoes.Tix.com
Official Website: ZombieJoes.com