No pain, no gain

Pub date October 13, 2009
WriterRobert Avila
SectionArts & CultureSectionStage

THEATER Thrillpeddlers, the Bay Area’s Grand Guignol maestros, is having a very good year. Amid an ever-extending run of the gloriously notorious Cockettes’ musical Pearls over Shanghai — the hit revival now shimmying its way to New Year’s Day — opened its 10th anniversary pageant of Halloween-season splatter drama in the perennially spooky sideshow-cool of the company’s tricked-out Hypnodrome theater.

This year, the mix of terror and titillation known as Shocktoberfest features two one-act plays (separated by a little guillotine fetishizing and capped by TP’s signature haunted blackout). The Phantom Limb is a new work in the Grand Guignol style from the luridly clever pen of Thrillpeddlers stalwart Rob Keefe. Set in postbellum New Orleans, the simple but well-laid plot writhes around the enterprising Madame DuCharme (a genial Miss Sheldra), who has recently hung her shingle in the city’s red-light district and opened her den of sin (a churlish piano player flanked by assorted good-natured harlots in period frippery courtesy of actor–costume designer Kara Emry) to Civil War veterans Northern and Southern.

While Yankees may find the service a little on the harsh side, basically everybody gets a roll before they get rolled, since "Mama" (as Madame is affectionately known) flies but one all-inclusive flag over her business, and it’s a fat greenback. A little more than money enters the equation, however, with the arrival of a charming one-armed Yankee captain (the dexterous Eric Tyson Wertz) whose express satisfaction at Mama’s hokum "remedy" for phantom limb itch is such that he levels a proposal at her on the spot — one that points beyond the altar to something slightly more kinky and sinister. The payoff is a scream, and the finale a harmonious, unexpectedly resonant paean to perseverance under adversity.

The Torture Garden, meanwhile, marks another Thrillpeddlers first, being an English-language premiere of a 1922 Le Theatre du Grand Guignol classic: Pierre Chaine and Andre de Lorde’s Le Jardin des Supplices, based on an infamous novel by anarchist journalist and avant-gardist Octave Mirbeau, and adapted for Thrillpeddlers’ stage by actor and Theater Rhino founder Lanny Baugniet. Expanding on Pearls over Shanghai‘s yen for oriental exoticism, Torture Garden posits a decadent Chinese world where torture reaches aesthetic perfection — in the able hands of expert torturer Ti-Mao, played by Baugniet with pure malevolent finesse — and nourishes a garden of exquisite beauty. It’s a world into which a young Frenchman (a dashing William McMichael) finds himself drawn by a captivating but decidedly unbalanced beauty named Clara Watson (a sharp and lively Adeola Role).

The torture is reportedly excruciating but the cast is pure pleasure. At the helm of both plays (and in the part of Garden‘s decorous ship’s captain), artistic director Russell Blackwood is especially sharp in staging this guilty pleasure. If the pace admittedly slackens a bit midway, the story and acting compel throughout, while the company’s macabre low-rent special effects and dependable flash of flesh never fail to satisfy a certain 10-year itch.


Through Nov. 20

Thurs–Fri, 8 p.m., $25–$69

Hypnodrome Theatre, 575 10th St., SF