The Thrillpeddlers often describe their annual Halloween variety shows as a series of hot and cold showers. Based on the work of Paris's fin de siècle Theatre du Grand Guignol, Shocktoberfests are always structured as a series of short sex farces and trashy musical numbers (the hot showers) and horror plays (the cold showers).
But the company's latest, Shocktoberfest 14: Jack the Ripper, too often feels lukewarm.
Because the Thrillpeddlers draw from actual Grand Guignol plays (Jack the Ripper by André de Lorde and Pierre Chaîne) or write new ones in that style (The Wrong Ripper by Rob Keefe), the scripts often suffer from the plodding plotting of theatrical museum pieces. Exposition comprises the bulk of each play, ever metastasizing with new complications that the dialogue spells out with instruction-manual thoroughness and lines that now sound like clichés. Only some of the company's sizable cast performs outrageously enough to elevate this dreck to camp.
Usually the Thrillpeddlers pay audiences back with a spectacularly gory climax that capitalizes on the ponderous exposition. (Front row audiences beware: The fourth wall offers scant protection from what comes off the stage.) But in this production, only some of the bloodshed is worth the slog. One of the short plays actually leaves unused a roomful of iron Victorian torture devices (by props designer Yusuke Soi). Perhaps the best of the bill is thus the shortest one, the one with the least to explain: A Visit to Mrs. Birch and the Young Ladies of the Academy, a "Victorian spanking drama" (as if that were a legit genre) from 1888. The company shows only the first scene, where Sally (Julia McArthur), a servant at a school for girls, peeps on a fetish spanking of a student by a teacher, and then is subjected to one of her own, by cackling schoolgirls, as punishment. Her bloomers, by costume designer Tina Sogliuzzo (one of three designers the company employs to create the show's parade of period ensembles), conveniently feature a cut-out butt, to facilitate switch-on-skin contact. This short scene showcases what the Thrillpeddlers do best: forcing a bunch of squirming egos to reckon with unadulterated id, the dark underbelly of human desire.
444 Days, a world premiere by Torange Yeghiazarian at Golden Thread Productions, the company she founded in 1996, couldn't be more different from Shocktoberfest. Golden Thread claims this drama is the first about the Iranian hostage crisis written by an Iranian artist. The play chronicles the mysterious relationship between Laleh (Jeri Lynn Cohen), an Iranian revolutionary, and Harry (Michael Shipley), now an American diplomat and in 1979 one of the hostages Laleh helped capture and guard during the crisis. By exploring their power struggles, political and otherwise, both then and 25 years later, Yeghiazarian asks broader questions about how the crisis shapes the way both countries see the world today.
But like Shocktoberfest 14, 444 Days suffers from so much back-story that it's always explaining itself rather than allowing events to unfold in real time. The drama here lies in finding out what exactly happened in 1979 to make Harry tail Laleh around the globe 25 years after the hostage crisis and into Stanford Hospital, where Laleh's daughter Hadyeh (Olivia Rosaldo-Pratt) lies in a coma. Now speaking for the first time in decades, the two trade barbs about who's most to blame for their falling out and then, improbably, take up where they left off as adversaries in a game of espionage and counter-espionage. In an attempt to keep us guessing who's tricking whom, Yeghiazarian relies on a pile of hairpin plot twists that ask us to believe that both characters would gamble their children's safety (after both have gone to some length to protect it) for a reward of military intelligence that becomes important only toward the play's end.
The best part of 444 Days is when it lives not in the past but the future. When all other characters have left the room, Hadyeh wakes up for a moment and imagines what being conscious would be like: feeling berry juice dripping down her hands, wind in her hair. Rosaldo-Pratt, a regular on the small-theater circuit, gives her finest performance in recent memory, imbuing each phrase with a contagious zest for experience even as she's limited to kneeling on her hospital bed.
It's a well-performed scene, but, just as important, it's allowed to speak for itself.