For better (or some might say, for worse), I’ve gotten to know Colin Mitchell (FB), one of the masterminds (perhaps the evil one?) behind the Los Angeles theater website Bitter Lemons (FB). Colin recently invited me to see his new show “Madness! Murder! Mayhem!” at Zombie Joes Underground (FB). Given that I’ve grown to like ZJU’s stuff, and I had a Friday free, I decided to give it a try — thus creating the second double-header weekend of July (tonight we see Jesus Christ Superstar at REP East (FB) in Newhall (Santa Clarita).
M!M!M! is advertised as “Three Classic Grand Guignol Plays Re-Imagined”. My only familiarity with the Grand Guignol style is Sondheim’s classic “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street“. I knew the style was somewhat dark, but there was also an element of humor behind it. According to the website of Thrillpeddlers, a San Francisco based company specializing in the style, the term ‘Grand Guignol’ refers to any dramatic entertainment that deals with macabre subject matter and features “over-the-top” graphic violence. It is derived from Le Theatre du Grand Guignol, the name of the Parisian theatre that horrified audiences for over sixty years. The theatre was founded in 1897 as an extension of the naturalist movement. A typical evening at the Grand Guignol Theatre might consist of five or six short plays, ranging from suspenseful crime dramas to bawdy sex farces. But the staple of the Grand Guignol repertoire was the horror play, which inevitably featured eye-gouging, throat-slashing, acid-throwing, or some other equally grisly climax. In the case of M!M!M!, we had three short plays (running just over an hour) that fit the horror play style quite well, including the grisly. These are not plays for people squicked out by intense personal descriptions or horror. Well, unless you’ve had a little to drink. All of the plays were written by Colin Mitchell (FB)💀.
[💀 Note: The sub-title claims these are three classic plays re-imagined, but there is no credit to the original plays. As I write this up, I’ll endeavor to uncover the originals.]
The first playlet, At The Break of Day, tells the story of Lacazze (Ken MacFarlane (FB)) and Henri (Roland De Leon (FB)). To the best I can figure, it may be based (very loosely) on Chop-Chop! or The Guillotine (La Veuve), by Eugene Heros and Leon Abric. Lacazze has been imprisoned in a French Prison for a long time. One day, Henri, a new prisoner, joins him in the cell — scheduled for execution by the guillotine. Lacazze attempts to find out Henri’s story, discovering it was for a crime of passion when he thought his girlfriend was cheating on him. The twists of the crime are quite interesting, and I won’t spoil that part for you. Eventually, Lacazze starts taunting Henri about the guillotine and what execution by guillotine is … in gory detail. He discusses how it doesn’t work, and how sometimes the head seems to live on Eventually, Henri gets enraged and proceeds to kill Lacazze with his bare hands. He is left, at the end of the scene, with the steady chop chop chop sound of the guillotine.
This play touched a nerve with me, partially because the song “Madam Guillotine” from The Scarlett Pimpernel has always given me slight chills (“Now come let our lady possess you /In her breathtaking, hair-raising bed /She will tingle your spine /As she captures your heart and your head”). The description of the head living after the chop is just something I can’t imagine. Very good horror imagery there. My wife saw some parallels between the end and Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart”, which is equally chilling. I found the performances very good, particularly MacFarlen’s Lacazze, which captured just the right level of madness and reason… and revenge. In fact, if there was a notion behind this playlet, it was the destructive power of revenge — in particular, early on I wrote down the phrase “Live for Revenge”. I’ll note that this created an odd connection with our last play, Matilda, which also dealt with revenge — as did Carrie, for that matter. Perhaps revenge is one of those emotions at the heart of Grand Guignol.
The second playlet, Natasha, appears to be based on L’Horrible Passion, by André de Lorde, about a young nanny who strangled the children in her care. It tells the story of Miss Dorie Logan (Jonica Patella (FB)), a nanny in a house where three children were brutally murdered. Dr. Benjamin Wavers (Colin Mitchell (FB)), a friend of Judge Clarrow (Dale Sandlin (FB)), believes that although she didn’t see the murderer, her subconscious did. He convinces the judge to permit her to be hypnotized, and when she does — let’s just say she did more than see the murderer. The ending was particularly chilling.
In some ways here, the story here was a bit telegraphed (if you’re familiar with Sybil). However, the story was suitably gruesome, particular the description of the deaths of the children (the two boys in particular still sticks with me). The performances were also very strong: Dr. Wavers very controlled, and Clarrow portraying skepticism and then interest quite well. But the best performance here was Patella, with the contrast between the meek personality of Dorie and the aggressive personality of Natasha.
The third playlet, Orgy in the Lighthouse, appears to be adapted from Alfred Marchand’s play of the same name, which was about two brothers who entertain a pair of whores in a lighthouse on a holy day. It this version it was two cousins: the lighthouse operator Bernard (Vincent Cusimano (FB)) and his cousin Edmund (Alex Walters (FB)). Edmund surprises Bernard one stormy and foggy evening for his “birthday” by bringing over two whores — Claire (Shayne Eastin (FB)) and Penelope (Jessica Madelaine). Bernard is disinterested, being more concerned that the lighthouse works. But Edmund insists — and sometimes forces the women violently. Eventually, he pushes Claire onto Bernard, and goes into the other room to have his way forcibly with Penelope. While doing so, he disconnects the gas line. This enrages Bernard, and Edmond keeps coming up with solutions — such as setting a whore on fire and hanging her outside the lighthouse. The ending is particuarly grisly, and shall we say explosive?
The story in this play bothered me the most, simply because of the changes in society that have made strong violence against women particularly unpalatable. It is no longer acceptable to forcibly assault women against their will (I’m not sure it was ever right, but in the past it was often a part of life); this makes its portrayal on stage something very hard to watch. But I guess that’s the role of theatre — to make you uncomfortable, to make you realize what you tolerate and what you don’t. I am willing to accept that the violence was part of the original story (which makes it more gruesome now). The gore in this particular was a little less verbal and a bit more implied and offstage via sound effects, except for a chilling last scene.
The performances, however, were good. Cusimano gave off the image of reticence well, and Walters captured the violence inherent in Edmund with chilling calm. Eastin and Madelaine were appropriately whorish, if not a little overly so and potentially exaggerated; near the end, they captured the fear of the characters quite well.
The production was directed by Jana Wimer (FB), and was (in general) good. My only quibble was at times the actors seemed to be directed to overact a little bit — just a little overemphasis, just a little over the top. What I don’t know is whether this overplaying was intentional. After all, Grand Guignol is not a simple naturalistic presentation, but a stylized presentation that emphasizes both the gore and the humor. It is also a style out of the 1800s. Given that this was Grand Guignol style, the particular overlay that I recognized could very well have been part of that style. For now, I’ll assume that it was; it wasn’t a strong distraction from the show overall.
Taken together, I think these three playlets captured the Grand Guignol style well. I now have a much better understanding of the style — it is more than just Sweeney Todd — it is a style plays up the gore and grossness for a particular audience emotional impact. Not fear exactly, but horror (and there is a subtle difference). In that, these playlets worked well — they all demonstrated the horrific side of human nature. Additionally (and thus the title of this writeup), they all had an interesting sideways movement at the end, going into a direction that you weren’t expecting.
In general, the production side at Zombie Joe’s is spare and sparse. The set consists of a few wooden boxes; the lighting consists of clip-on lamps with colored bulbs (there isn’t even professional level Lekos or a clear lighting board). But it works: the sparse setting permits one to create the horror in your own mind, and to focus on the performances. The sound effects during the show worked particularly well. Technical credits: Scenic Blocks by Xandra-Marie Gabucan (FB) and David Wyn Harris (FB). Music Consultant: Elif Savas (FB). Costume Assistance: Jeri Batzdorff (FB). Assistant Director, ZJU GM, and Tech Guru: Adam Neubauer (FB). Sound design, ZJU Webmaster, and Online PR Manager: Randy “Kernel” Long. ZJU Production Advisers: Josh T. Ryan (FB) and Zombie Joe. Poster Graphics by Jana Wimer (FB) and Adam Neubauer (FB). Produced by Zombie Joe.
One note, which I seem to make every time I visit Zombie Joe’s: their website. Sigh. Their website design, which looks like an old Homestead website because it is an old Homestead website, is truly stuck in the early 1990s era of web design, with a flashy and garish background, poor organization, and what looks to be a non-responsive design. Just as I need to update my highways site, they need to update theirs. Their productions are so good, that their website shouldn’t look so amateurish. So, now-that-I-know-your-name, Mr. Randy Long. You’re their webmaster. Please make their site better — ZJU deserves it.
Madness! Murder! Mayhem! has three more performances: July 17, July 24, and July 31. Tickets are available through the ticket link on the ZJU website. The show runs just over one hour. If you’re into horror or the Grand Guignol style, this is worth seeing. If you’re into family entertainment, I’d give it a pass and go see Murder for Two instead.
Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre critic; I am, however, a regular theatre audience. I’ve been attending live theatre in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I subscribe at three theatres: REP East (FB), The Colony Theatre (FB), and Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals). I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.
Upcoming Shows: July is a month of double-headers. Tonight is the second half of this weekend’s double header: “Jesus Christ Superstar” at REP East (FB). Next weekend is another double header: “The History Boys” at the Stella Adler Theatre (FB) on Saturday (Goldstar), and “Green Grow The Lilacs” at Theatricum Botanicum (FB) on Sunday. The last weekend of July brings our last double: “Lombardi” at the Lonny Chapman Group Rep (FB) on July 25th, with the annual Operaworks show the next day. August start calming down, with “As You Like It” at Theatricum Botanicum (FB) the first weekend of August, our summer Mus-ique show the second weekend of August, and “The Fabulous Lipitones” at The Colony Theatre (FB) the third weekend of August. After that we’ll need a vacation … but then again we might squeeze in Evita at the Maui Cultural Center (FB) the last weekend of August. September right now is mostly open, with the only ticketed show being “The Diviners” at REP East (FB) and a hold-the-date for “First Date” at The La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts (FB). October will bring another Fringe Festival: the NoHo Fringe Festival (FB). October also has the following as ticketed or hold-the-dates: Kelrik Production (FB)’s Urinetown at the Monroe Forum Theatre (Hold for Sat 10/3); “Mrs. A. Lincoln” at The Colony Theatre (FB) (Ticketed for Sat 10/10); and “Damn Yankees” at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB) (Ticketed for Sat 10/17). As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Bitter-Lemons, and Musicals in LA, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411.