The Blood Brothers Present... The New Guignol
nytheatre.com review by Will Fulton
October 28, 2009
Le Theatre du Grand-Guignol operated in Paris from 1897 to 1962, and was best known for its short, gory, naturalistic, horror plays. Most popular between the wars, patrons would attend to see five or six plays in an evening, often based on headlines and urban legends of the day. The shows were noted for their innovative and gory special effects, and have their legacy perhaps more in contemporary crime procedural television and horror films than in theatre.
Thus it is entirely appropriate that Nosedive Productions revive this notorious form as Halloween approaches with The Blood Brothers Present...The New Guignol, an evening of new Guignol-esque plays written by Danny Bowes, James Comtois, and Mac Rogers, and directed by Pete Boisvert, Rebecca Comtois, Stephanie Cox-Williams, Abe Goldfarb, Matt Johnston, and Patrick Shearer. The titular Blood Brothers (played with charm and confidence by Boisvert and Shearer) guide the audience through seven horrible vignettes all taken directly from recent headlines (think incest, decapitation, cannibalism). Smartly, every piece is followed by a projection of the actual news clipping, driving home their professed thesis of revealing the inexplicable and unpredictable darkness that seethes beneath the surface of human nature and can rear its ugly head at any time and in any person. The form and spirit of the evening is an admirable tribute to the Grand Guignol's peculiar moment in theatrical history.
Despite an abundance of directors and writers, the whole evening feels remarkably unified. Arnold Bueso's scenic design is stripped to a functional minimum and Sarah Riffe and Madame Rosebud's costumes simply and effectively express the character's archetypes. Shearer's sound design is reasonably effective, if perhaps a little underdeveloped. Though, given that he is also directing, producing, and performing, he certainly cannot be criticized for slacking off. The designs as a whole are spare with a bent towards realism, and ultimately felt true to the spirit of the original.
The only area in which this minimalism became a problem was special effects. The Grand Guignol was seminal in the development and popularization of modern special effects, and as such I was excited to see eye-gougings, throat-slashings, and dismemberments. There are a handful of gory special effects, but as a whole it is lacking in blood. Those that are there are good and upsetting, but they are fewer and farther between than I would have liked. For example, the night's strongest effect, and perhaps most genuinely upsetting moment, is a particularly gory and realistic injury that is revealed by an E.R. doctor. It is not a moment for the squeamish. But on learning the story of how the injury occurred, I was left wishing that the event itself had been the scene, rather than its aftermath.
While the horror may be lacking, the dark humor, also characteristic of the genre, is generally on the mark. The Brothers' banter is sharply written and has a few fantastically self-aware moments ("I do sound like the Crypt Keeper..."). The ensemble cast is cohesive with no particularly strong or weak links. For the most part people play to type, but it feels appropriate for the piece. Though not as visceral an experience as I had hoped going in, The New Guignol is an earnest and loving tribute to the original. Despite a lack of blood and some structural inconsistencies, it is fun, which is a value that cannot be overestimated, and it ultimately serves as an effective reminder that every day we are precariously poised on the edge of chaos.