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Shock and Yawn 

The best part of "Welcome to the Hypnodrome" comes after the plays end

Wednesday, Oct 27 2004
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The quaint Gothic horror plays classified as Grand Guignol started as ripped-from-the-headlines realism: Paris' Théâtre du Grand Guignol specialized in true-crime stories of prostitutes, murderers, and madmen. Yes, things moved on to necrophiliacs and spattered blood as soon as possible, and one of the theater's early directors judged a show by the tally of people who fainted in the audience, but the first controversies over Grand Guignol had to do with lowlifes talking street trash onstage.

Now the plays are uncontroversial. When the theater closed, in 1962, its last director lamented, "We could never compete with Buchenwald. Before the war, everyone believed that what happened onstage was purely imaginary; now we know that these things -- and worse -- are possible."

So the Grand Guignol followed an arc, from too real to not real enough, and somewhere in the middle it found a feverish balance that thrilled and scandalized Parisians. Russell Blackwood wants to bring that era back. For five years he's mounted old Guignol scripts around Halloween, with his former partner, Daniel Zilber, in a revue called Shocktoberfest!, and now the theater troupe they created has its own home in a gloomy converted warehouse South of Market. The Hypnodrome is part theater, part Halloween fright-maze. "Welcome to the Hypnodrome" serves as this year's Shocktoberfest! -- a production of three short Guignol plays intended to show off the new space.

Unfortunately, the plays are lame. Unless a director works the material into something camp-outrageous or funny, Guignol isn't worth reviving, and for some reason Blackwood has thrown no energy into spectacle or style. The first play, The Beast, deals with a melancholy Count Ahorn, who lives in a crumbling manor "high in the Austrian Tyrol." His wife, Edwige, is a prisoner; wolves howl in the distance. An American wrecks his car nearby and comes to the manor to wrap his wounds, and soon the unspeakable secrets of the Ahorn family unfold.

The show looks and feels so much like The Mystery of Irma Vep that you sit there wondering why no one has bothered to play up the connection. Bob Taxin, especially, seems bored as Count Ahorn; instead of acting arch or grandiose he line-reads his role in a mumble. Jeff Taub, as the American, is also stiff and false, and Karl the cadaverous butler (played by Eric O'Brien) just stands around like a suit of armor even when he isn't needed onstage. The only person with a sense of style is Jill Tracy, as Countess Edwige, but she can't spin a whole atmosphere by herself, even if she can play the pump organ.

The second piece, Bearded Assets, should be a delightfully rude little play about an affair between the bearded lady in a French circus and a mute ticket-taker. Delfina Hasiwar does well enough as Madame Penumbra, the bearded lady with a shapely, plump, and crowd-attracting ass, and Blackwood himself steps onstage for a vivid cameo as a hotel manager named Le Blanc. But Tristan Thunderbolt -- with names like these, actually, I'm not sure why the cast needs a script at all -- is smirky and self-conscious as Marcel the ticket-taker; the other miscellaneous men are stilted. The play would be a total wash if not for some ingenious use of stage blood at the, um, end.

The strongest play is also the showpiece, Murder of the Will. It's about a hypnotist named René whose experiment on a woman he loves goes morbidly wrong. (The French title is L'Amant de la Morte, or "Lover of the Dead.") Brian Raffi falls flat as René, but Eric O'Brien comes alive as a solid Gérard Leconte, husband of the beloved Simone, and Delfina Hasiwar upstages everyone in a small role as Ginette Baljour, a sassy, cynical flapper friend. A few flourishes also hint at what the new Hypnodrome can do -- a rear door rolls back to allow in Mardi Gras revelers and a live fire-eater; cheap trick lighting lets us know when Simone has been hypnotized. But the show still has long boring stretches, because at bottom the script is junk. Blackwood might argue that he's preserving the true spirit of Guignol by making sure his actors don't overpolish, but the time for true Guignol is done; you can't make it awkward -- or even revive its early realism -- and expect a modern crowd to understand.

The payoff for watching these plays comes at the very end, when the lights go out and the Hypnodrome becomes a Halloween amusement house with flying, glow-in-the-dark ghosts and a walking skeleton. The rear of the theater has more expensive "Shock Boxes," where spectators can expose themselves to some horrid, unnamed stimulation that had certain people screaming on the night I attended. I have no idea what went on in there. But a peanut gallery of hecklers who refused to take any of the drama seriously staggered out of one box muttering, "That was well worth it."

Drinks, happily, are served at intermission.

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