It may be Halloween or the nip in the air or maybe too much Wild Turkey but whatever it is, there is something fascinating about the "Grand Guignol" that opened Thursday night at Off The Wall Theatre
Grand Guignol was a theater in Paris, popular in the late 1800s until 1960. For anyone who likes the "Nightmare on Elm Street" and the other slasher movies, you owe a debt to the Grand Guignol.
The hallmark of the theater was the short and bloody plays that always had a surprise twist at the end. The style was full of amoral conduct and blood, lots of blood. Special effects got standing ovations at the Grand Guignol.
Dale Gutzman, the always challenging artistic director, has put together four plays, each directed by a different person, all in the style of the Grand Guignol. Perhaps the best way to explain what is going on is to take a step-by-step look at the second play, "The Final Torture."
The Boxer Rebellion began in 1900, when the Chinese revolted against foreign imperialism.
General Grangier is sitting in his office, in command of beleaguered troops who have kept the Chinese at bay for 55 days. He is hoping for reinforcements to arrive soon as his defenses are wilting.
He is visited by Wing Lo, a Chinese leader who has come, the general believes, to offer a peaceful settlement. But Wing Lo says there will be no settlement, only death.
Please, the general pleads, spare the women and children. His daughter, Denice, is in camp, ministering to the wounded.
"No," replies Wing Lo as he leaves. "The women and children will be raped and killed."
The general sends Bournin, his trusty aide who only wants to be a concert pianist, to Peking to see if the extra troops are on the way. While Bournin is gone, however, the Chinese attack. The general asks himself the crucial question: "Can we kill the ones we love (his daughter) to spare them from a more horrible death?"
His daughter arrives and the general gives her a gun and he goes to fight. Bourin returns, bloody, and shows Denice that the Chinese have cut off his hands and he will never be a concert pianist. They pledge their love. The general returns and mistakes Bournin for the enemy and kills him with an increasingly bloodied sword.
The general is convinced the Chinese are about to overrun the camp so he kisses his daughter and, in exquisite slow motion, strangles her to death to spare her from the horror of becoming a sex toy for the Chinese soldiers.
As she dies a voice from offstage shouts that "The reinforcements are here. We have won."
The general looks pretty miserable and cries out and the play ends.
The first play is set in a mental ward where a crazy clown is being treated for his guilt over having killed his son while in a circus performance. The third is set in a hospital ward where a young man has been splattered by sulfuric acid by his fiance. She comes to visit, and guess what happens.
And the final is a take on "Pagliacci," the folk tale that spawned the famed Leoncavallo opera. It’s the story of a clown and his group of touring actors and singers with love and cheating and lying and jealousy and music and mayhem and murder and blood, lots of blood. I mean lots of blood.
There are two ways to look at this production.
One is to treat it like a standard evening of theater. The acting is awful. The music is average. The whole thing looks like a community theater on steroids.
The second way is to realize that none of the other stuff matters when you have stories like these to be told.
You wouldn’t like this as a steady diet but every once in awhile who doesn’t like a story with love and cheating and lying and jealousy and music and mayhem and murder and blood, lots of blood. I mean lots of blood.
"Grand Guignol" runs through Nov. 8 and information on showtimes and tickets is available here.
With a history in Milwaukee stretching back decades, Dave tries to bring a unique perspective to his writing, whether it's sports, politics, theater or any other issue.
He's seen Milwaukee grow, suffer pangs of growth, strive for success and has been involved in many efforts to both shape and re-shape the city. He's a happy man, now that he's quit playing golf, and enjoys music, his children and grandchildren and the myriad of sports in this state. He loves great food and hates bullies and people who think they are smarter than everyone else.
This whole Internet thing continues to baffle him, but he's willing to play the game as long as OnMilwaukee.com keeps lending him a helping hand. He is constantly amazed that just a few dedicated people can provide so much news and information to a hungry public.
Despite some opinions to the contrary, Dave likes most stuff. But he is a skeptic who constantly wonders about the world around him. So many questions, so few answers.