The playwright Anton Chekhov famously wrote that if you put a gun onstage in a play's first act, then it must go off in the second. That principle is on abundant display in the Thrillpeddlers' production of Shocktoberfest 13: The Bride of Death -- except the weapon could be any or all of the props onstage, and the means of killing grisly enough to shoot fake blood uncomfortably close to the laps of those in the first row.
Now in its 13th year, the Thrillpeddlers' annual Halloween production is a variety show of the ghastly and the garish. The group draws extensively from the Theatre du Grand Guignol, a fin-de-siecle company known for combining horror dramas and sex farces to achieve a broad range of titillation. The first piece on the program, Coals of Fire by Fredrick Whitney, comes from London's first Grand Guignol theater; others are written in the Grand Guignol style by contemporary writers Michael Phillis and Rob Keefe; and rounding out the bill are the songs "I'm A Mummy" and "Those Beautiful Ghouls" and the theater's patented glow-in-the-dark spook show.
While it wouldn't be difficult to find a more intellectual theater in the Bay Area, you'd be hard-pressed to find a company with a clearer mission or more consistently high-quality work. The Thrillpeddlers are shameless, putting onstage deep, dark theatrical fantasies, but they execute their shamelessness with professionalism and panache. They give what they advertise -- thrills -- an all too rare commodity in Bay Area theater.
The plays in Shocktoberfest 13: The Bride of Death are heavy on exposition, but it never really matters who slept with whose husband or whose Brazilian rowing team hookup gets stabbed by the scalpel that's stuck via experimental hallucinogenic superglue to the hand of which frustrated mad scientist. What matters are Alice Cunt's costumes, Flynn DeMarco's wigs and makeup, and the performers' over-the-top spirit. Lipstick arches rival McDonald's. One necklace-neckline combination accentuates the bust from almost 360 degrees. Everywhere the production's aesthetics push -- and push-up -- boundaries, speaking to our lowest desires but also, in the own subtle way, calling attention to the idea of looking. The actors are every bit as exhibitionistic as their costumes, at total ease screaming, sweating, and stripping even in the intimate quarters of the Hypnodrome, with special commendation to veteran Peddlers DeMarco and Bonni Suval, who, with their commitment and verve, own the stage amid total chaos.
And for those who find the chaos too total, the smut too vulgar, the violence too gratuitous, there's always the Thrillpeddlers' motto, which, we hear, is also attributed to Chekhov: "Sissies stay home."