Blue Room revisits Parisian horror theater
Chico, CA 95928
The macabre, mixed with some campy comedy relief, is making for a dreadfully pleasing seasonal offering at Chico’s Blue Room. The theater is re-creating some chilling early 20th-century theater offerings from Paris’ renowned Theatre du Grand Guignol. Legend has it that, the Grand Guignol (1897-1962) presented horrors so intense that a house doctor was always on-hand to tend to those who became distressed or fainted.
In the Blue Room’s two-hour, four-play version last Friday night, there was no house doctor, but we were left to examine and re-examine our sensibilities as we watched several different nefarious characters act out revenge, infidelity, insanity and reactions to the pressures of war. Overall, the gruesomeness of the Blue Room’s Le Theatre du Grand Guignol was largely psychological and implied. Although it may not have required audience members up front to don plastic ponchos, the evening did include a disfigured face, death by bare hands, bloody nubs as the result of chopped-off hands, and humans being crushed by tons of weight.
John Duncan directs two of the plays, while Melanie Smith and Hilary Tellesen direct the others. In between the one-acts, Blue Room artistic director Ben Allen introduced each short production with quickly paced and clever commentary. As Allen explained a bit about the tales ahead and how they may make us examine our own emotional responses, he offered, in a gruff French accent reminiscent of Albert Finney in Murder on the Orient Express, “We are all poor students of this existence, each one of us kissed by God himself or yoked in Satan’s merciless employ.”
That quote, Allen said later, was a reference to, and in homage of, Quills, Doug Wright’s play about the Marquis de Sade’s last years in a French insane asylum (and which the Blue Room produced several years ago).
Grand Guignol’s first vignette, “The Final Kiss,” stars Sean Green and Dana Moore. We join Henri (Green), a disfigured man in a bathrobe whose only comfort comes from an opium hookah, one year after he was brutally burned by his ex, Jeanne (Moore), who used sulfuric-acid-in-the-face as her weapon. Fresh out of prison, a fragile Jeanne pays a visit to Henri, vociferously professing her regret about her admitted crime. Henri declares forgiveness, but the couple are clearly uncomfortable with themselves and each other.
While each of the plays has sprinklings of humor, “Badin the Bold” really is a comedy, though the actions of Badin, a troubled slacker employee played by Murri Lazaroff-Babin, are somewhat disquieting. Here, Badin pleads to his boss, Mayer, played by one of this area’s most reliable actors, Don Eggert. While Mayer berates Badin about his spotty attendance, Badin appeals to him for sympathy, citing his plight as an underpaid worker who is stuck on a low rung of life’s ladder. Big-blue-eyed Samantha Deshler provides some well-timed comic relief as the boss’ assistant, Ovid.
In “The Nutcracker Suite,” Rosalie, the lovely, well-kept wife of the aristocratic Nicholas, has a young suitor on the side, well played by Michael Kellogg. Cara Clifford does a fine job as adventurous Rosalie in her Blue Room stage debut, and Michael Townzen is a perfectly twisted Nicholas, who tries to bring down the ceiling on his wife’s wayward ways.
Finally, “The Ultimate Torture” brings with it a most troubling circumstance. As a war in China rages around them, six soldiers and their families have been hiding out in a small building for more than a month. D’Hemmelin, played by Eggert, is a stalwart military leader for the French allied forces. But with the stress of the rockets’ red glare and bombs bursting in air, insanity seeping into his troops and their wives, and a distressed daughter also present, we are left to study just how much pressure D’Hemmelin can take.
The Blue Room’s stark sets were modeled after the original Grand Guignol, which was light on elaborate designs but heavy on the scripts that spark moral contemplations. The dark, stripped-down stage helped steer the focus directly to the characters and their unusual plights. The lead characters were all excellent, as were the majority of the supporting actors, most notably Keilana Decker in “The Ultimate Torture.” A few actors in minor roles were a little weak in their deliveries but those weaknesses were easily overcome by the rest of the cast.
Allen said that part of the reason the Blue Room chose the Grand Guignol to begin the season, aside from the obvious pre-Halloween timing, was to hark back to the early days of the Blue Room and its predecessor, the Cosmic Travel Agency, which staged several years of Grand Guignol performances.