Review: ‘Pyramid of Freaks’ — a festival of Grand Guignol at ThrillPeddlers (***)`

by Charles Kruger

This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)
This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

Grand Guignol Theatre originated in Paris and continued in London during the first half of the 20th century. It featured plays of horror focussed on special effects (decapitations, burnings, blood lettings) but also psychological horror involving madness and altered states of consciousness. At its peak in London it featured some of the leading performers of the British stage including the reknowned Shakespearean actress Dame Sybil Thorndike.

When the original Grand Guignol in Paris finally closed, it’s director, Charles Nonon, remarked:“We could never equal Buchenwald.  Before the war, everyone felt that what was happening onstage was impossible. Now we know that these things, and worse, are possible in reality.”

Enter Russell Blackwood, director of The Thrillpeddlers. When, a couple decades past, Blackwood discovered a book on the Grand Guignol theatre, he immediately set out to stage revivals, recognizing the potential camp in the horror, and seeing a connection between Grand Guignol and the Theatre of the Ridiculous. The result, respectful of tradition, is funny, horrifying, bizarre and delicious. His yearly Shocktoberfest  (now in its 17th year) at the eccentric Hypnodrome is one of San Francisco’s finest and strangest theatrical traditions.

This year’s performance includes multiple plays, genuinely horrifying and genuinely funny, performed by a wildly enthusiastic cast.

All the performers are excellent, but James Jeske is particular horrifying and amusing as the owner of a reportedly haunted house. Also remarkable is Dan Foley as a hapless drunk subjected to a horrifying cure for his dipsomania.

The band, Vagabondage, is outstanding both musically and acting-wise.

In short, whatever freaks you out, this show has got it! Great fun for the openminded!

“Pyramid of Freaks” plays at Thrillpeddlers through November 19th. For further information, click here.

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Rating: ***
(For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here)

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“The Haunted House” by Marc Bonis-Charancle. English version by Richard Hand and Michael Wilson. “The Hellgrammite Method”adapted by William Selby from a Twilight Zone episode broadcast November 5, 1988. “Demon Train To Sodom,” a world premiere musical by Scrumbly Koldwyn. “Pyramid of Freaks, ” a world premiere black comedy by Rob Keefe. Plus a Lights Out Spook Show Finale by Nicholas Torre. Produced by Thrillpeddlers: Directors: Russell Blackwood and Noel Haydon. 

Cast: David Bicha, Kai Brothers, Culpability Brown, Natalie Demchenko, Cameron Eng, Alix Feinsod, Dan Foley, Jim Jeske, Eric Johnson, Zelda Koznofski, Earl Alfred Paus, CJ Smith, Rochelle Urban, Jason Wade, Crystal Why.

The Band:

Vagabondage: Cindy Emch, John Flaw, Sean Malroy, Hans Winhold.

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