There will be blood
Blue Room celebrates classic extreme theater with Grand Guignol
“There’s extra knives in the box backstage marked ‘Orgy,’” Frankie Swa told a young man frantically searching for a weapon, as a woman in barely there, black vinyl dominatrix gear paced nearby on high-heeled boots, fidgeting with the riding crop she carried, quietly repeating, “Her meat … her meat …” Across the stage, a woman held up a bottle of liquid dish detergent, suggesting to an effects expert that the soap—augmented with a dash of red tint—could effectively pass for afterbirth.
This was just one of several surreal moments as the cast and crew of the Blue Room’s latest Grand Guignol production prepared for their Halloween-night opening, a night that Swa—one of the production’s five directors—promised will feature something for everyone. Well, at least everyone with a strong stomach and a twisted sense of humor.
“A lot of the scenes are very, very funny; it’s not just about the horror,” Swa explained of the Blue Room’s take on Grand Guignol, a style of theater best known for graphic depictions of sex and violence. “If the erotic thing is what you’re into, we’ve got plenty of that, too, in addition to all the blood and guts.”
The theatrical tradition started at Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol, a repurposed church in Paris, France, in 1897. From then until 1962, the theater focused on horror shows, striving to create the most realistic and horrific death scenes possible, to the point that it would keep a physician on hand; reportedly the theater judged the success of new performances on how many people would faint.
The company also appealed to theatergoers’ prurient interests, staging scandalously explicit sex scenes and renting out high-priced private boxes where couples and others could watch without being seen by other audience members. The genre had its roots in older traditions (think Shakespeare’s bloody tragedy, Titus Andronicus) and influenced the rise of slasher cinema.
Swa also noted that, in addition to the erotic and macabre, classic Grand Guignol scripts contained a great deal of dark humor and social criticism.
“A popular theme was the state of health care in France and all over Europe at the time,” he said, noting classic Guignol sketches in which the mentally ill are mistreated, and another in which an overworked, underfunded doctor’s only available option is to mutilate and/or kill his patients. “All of the stories had important, underlying messages.”
For the Blue Room’s homage to the form, Swa and fellow directors Cat Campbell, Joshua Siegel, Christian Lovgren, Erin Tarabini and Daryl Newsom have assembled a handful of one-act scenes, including original works and updates of Grand Guignol classics. The classic works include “The System,” which takes place in a sanitarium; “Orgy in the Lighthouse,” in which two men face the immediate and murderous consequences of acting out their lustful desires; and “Le Pussy,” in which the aforementioned vinyl-clad woman takes the lead.
Newer scenes include brutal tales of revenge, psychedelic drug freakouts and more. “Even for the modern ones, we drew inspiration from recurrent themes and situations you’d find in original Grand Guignol scripts,” Swa explained.
He also said—and it was evident at the rehearsal—that, though there are five directors involved, they’ve all collaborated to create a seamless production.
“We rehearse together and we all give each other feedback and suggestions,” Swa said of the process. “That’s not always the way it’s done with multiple directors, but it’s worked well with this production.”
Swa said he doesn’t expect Blue Room patrons to pass out or flee in disgust, but that won’t be because the scenes aren’t shocking. “I think most people who will come know what to expect, so that’s not likely,” he said.
“But the Blue Room has given us great freedom to do whatever we wanted, and we’re definitely doing Grand Guignol justice.”