A quirky Halloween-y night out, the Hunger Artists' annual performance of Madame Guignol's Macabre Theatre gives the audience the opportunity to explore a sliver of the theatrical spectrum—shock, horror, a blood-drenched stage—that's usually neglected. What began 10 years ago as the Hunger Artists' inspired desire to re-create the shock performances of Le Theatre du Grand Guignol—performances consisting of a number of short plays that sickened and fascinated Parisian audiences by enacting graphic murders, tortures and even sexual violence onstage during its existence from 1897 to 1962—has evolved into an annual event that entertains its own dedicated audiences while sustaining the irreverence and subversion at the heart of the Hunger Artists' theatrical vision.
This year's 10th anniversary staging, Guignol X, directed by company co-founder and artistic director Kelly Flynn, resuscitates the best of the past 10 years of darkly themed short plays, and he gives us an overall good and gory time. The production glories in the macabre—though its many technical fumbles weaken Guignol X's claim to be an in-your-face, adults-only, giddily gruesome theatrical display.
The show is made up of two groups of short plays that are performed on alternating nights: one a "Night of 'Thrills,'" the other a "Night of 'Chills.'" Both are framed by the story of Madame Guignol's festival (Guignol played for the seventh time by literary manager Kimberly M. Fisher) and the "Wheel of Misfortune," where "destiny, fate and chance all come together." Audience members are chosen to spin the wheel, prompting the unfolding of each of the five short plays—all carried out at close range to the audience and climaxing in violent and gory displays of disembowelment, barbaric brain surgery, and lusty, incestuous cannibalism. Yum.
Icky as this may all sound, Guignol X is actually pretty successful in carrying out the fundamental impulse of Le Theatre du Grand Guignol, which was to cross social thresholds of what's theatrically acceptable, to "transgress" in the time-honored French tradition of the Marquis de Sade. It certainly grossed me out. Trouble is, the Hunger Artists' execution doesn't match its ambition.
Dramatizing the boundaries of outsized melodrama and explicit horror, transgressive desire and fear, not to mention all sorts of other social taboos, depends on a precision and seamlessness of execution that isn't always possible in storefront theater. When the sound of an electric current passing through the exposed brain of a helpless mental patient (played by Jessica Beane) fails to coincide exactly with the onstage movements of the surgeon (played by Jeremy Gable) and the patient, it's hard to suspend one's disbelief. The terror of the moment gives way to the thought that the special-effects guys really need to get up to speed.
Ill-timed and sometimes inaudible sound cues and largely undisciplined effects from the crew are almost enough to cancel out the ensemble's otherwise impeccable pacing and its unquestionable commitment to the production. Kelly Flynn needs to threaten a little brain surgery on his crew—that'd be something to see—before Guignol XI.
GUIGNOL X, MADAME GUIGNOL'S MACABRE THEATER, THE HUNGER ARTISTS THEATRE COMPANY, 699-A S. STATE COLLEGE BLVD., FULLERTON, (714) 680-6803. FRI.-SAT., 8 P.M.; SUN., 7 P.M.; THURS., OCT. 27 & MON., OCT. 31, 8 P.M. THROUGH OCT. 31. $18-$20.