It can be hard to tell some Bay Area theater companies apart. They produce similar repertoires, they cast the same actors, and they use New York to define the terms of their success. ("One of our premieres shipped to Off-Broadway!")
It's refreshing to encounter a company that's so unabashedly itself and that doesn't see itself as a satellite of the New York scene. The Thrillpeddlers, who specialize in fetish thrillers in the mode of Paris' Theatre du Grand Guignol, represent a departure from theater-as-usual on almost every level. And their recent opening, Shocktoberfest 12: Fear over Frisco, while not flawless, always tantalizes.
Temptations are built into the theater itself. Modeled after the original Grand Guignol, the Hypnodrome features more than the usual fin de siècle touches: Lining the theater's rear wall is a series of "shock boxes," or private booths, that parties of two can reserve. Each has a theme, like "the padded cell," "the pharaoh's tomb," and "heaven and hell," with props to match.
As with the Parisian company, this production consists of a series of short plays and musical performances. Written by Eddie Muller and directed by Muller and Russell Blackwood, the three plays are set in San Francisco and steeped in noir — which means private eyes, trench coats, and the striped lighting of streetlamps filtering through window blinds. It also means naturalistic, even Ibsen-esque structure: An intricately detailed backstory relayed through prodigious exposition builds up to a secret, revealed with the aid of a scientist, a doctor, or just a precocious investigator.
But before too long, the quaint realism always explodes into farcical gore. After a moment where Humphrey Bogart wouldn't be out of place there comes a ghastly accident: a wife moving in for a long-awaited embrace only to run into the knife her husband's holding. Later, an older woman needlessly stripping a younger woman to her bra and slip before slitting her own throat.
At its best, Shocktoberfest 12 combines the virtues of a variety of forms: The old-fashioned pleasures of a tightly written, high-stakes thriller; the fun of parody; the indulgence in grotesque passions. At its worst, it dithers too long in exposition, justifying whatever creative means to use fake blood.
That was only an issue in the last play, "The Drug," which draws out what should have been a one scene into two. The play, about a woman who blinds her lover with acid, builds to a climactic moment in an opium den run by a Chinese servant — who is played by a white actor (Birdie-Bob Watt) in yellowface, complete with makeup, wig, and accent. Granted, theater like this is all about breaking taboos, but performances drawing on the tradition of racial minstrelsy are a special kind of taboo, one that necessitates a kind of strict artistic scrutiny to break. Here, the choice only distracted and offended, wholly without artistic justification.
The other two plays, "The Grand Inquisitor" and "An Obvious Explanation," fare better, thanks not just to brisker writing but also to the acting talents of lead members of the ensemble. Of special note is Bonni Suval, first as one of those meddling kids straight out of Scooby Doo trying to crack the case of San Francisco's notorious Zodiac killer, then as a hot scientist wielding a shot of truth serum. She can do soft-spoken agitation that seems almost untheatrical in its naturalism, as well as the saucy gestures of a woman who knows she's better-looking and smarter than everyone else in the room.
Unlike so many of today's plays, Shocktoberfest 12 insists on the stage. The way props (and dead bodies) pop out at just the right time, the way the well-chosen jazz standard interludes converse with the plays, the way the sudden revelation of Rob Fletcher and Flynn DeMarco's gruesome makeup truly sickens — this production just wouldn't work as a sitcom. To keep your boundaries respected and your fourth wall fortified, head to almost any other theater in town.