“It’s Halloween, everyone’s entitled to one good scare,” chuckles Sheriff Brackett from the quintessential film of the season, “Halloween.” Scaring and being scared is the reason for the season, in fact. It’s certainly one TheatreNOW holds true with their continuing tradition of bringing horror-themed plays to the stage in October, to fill Wilmington with plenty of frights, screams and mayhem. 2018 brings with it “Tales from the Grand Guignol”—an anthology piece that sandwiches horror and humor to a mixed result. It serves as a fine, if not outdated, way to celebrate the month of what goes bump in the dark.
The production itself finds its origins in the Paris theatrical venue of the 1900s, Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol. It was a stage made famous for its depictions of vignettes, with a distinctly bleak worldview, as well as extreme levels of over-the-top gore and special effects. Something of a staged version of EC Comics’ “Tales from the Crypt,” director Zach Hanner adapted three stories: “The Final Kiss,” “Tics or Doing the Deed” and “The Haunted House.” While they may have sent chills down audiences’ spines over a century ago, today, they sadly do not. Years of being retold in flashier ways, along with escalation of the horror genre simply shows why slow-paced, exposition-heavy stories feel out of style.
At the start the audience is greeted by Monsieur Hanner, who portrays something of a wide-eyed ringleader, hinting and threatening at the sights that are about to be unleashed. It brings to mind the Edward Van Sloan introduction of the classic “Frankenstein.” It even goes as far as to introduce the production’s “doctor,” who would be on hand in case anyone in the audience may be faint of heart. It’s a nice touch and adds to the overall William Castle-style the shows invokes.
Properly primed, the audience is transported to a small hospital room where a man (Jeremey Weir) is recovering from severe acid burns, as inflicted upon him from his fiancée (Jessica Farmer). It’s been a year since his attack, and doctors have done all they could for the poor soul’s face. It is all delved into with painstaking detail and borders on an exposition dump by the watchful doctor (Ken Vest) and a caring nun (Penelope Grover). As they change his bandages, the extent of his burns are teased, as scars can be seen off to the side of his face. Yet, the main attraction is held off for the act’s final crescendo.
Though the show as a whole features some very choppy blocking—seemingly wherein actors aimlessly move about the stage—here it is used effectively with the victim’s back kept toward the audience. It builds up the want to see what is hidden under the bandages. The story really kicks in to high gear with the return of the fiancée, as the two crossed lovers finally come face to … well, lack of face. Here Farmer and Weir are allowed to stretch the legs of their characters with confrontation, and the audience finally sees who these two are. Turns out, they are both pretty despicable and deserve each other. For at least one of them, a happy ending is reached—somewhat. The segment perfectly hits the “Tales from the Crypt” vibe and serves as the best story of the entire evening.
The mess left of the victim’s face is shown within the last moments of the vignette and it is exquisitely grotesque. Actually, the effects of the entire production are top-notch, from the mutilated mockery of the human face, all the way to a blood-squirting knife that oozes the red stuff delightfully. It’s crafted by the Madam of the Macabre, the General of Gore herself, Nicole Porreco Horton—who in a short time has had the stages of Wilmington running red in the greatest of fake blood. She is the Wilmington Tom Savini.
Following the “Final Kiss,” the audience is told of the hot/cold shower technique by Monsieur Hanner. It’s a tactic used often at the “Grand Guignol,” and entails starting with a horror short, followed by a comedy short and a return to horror. With that kicks off “Tics, or Doing the Deed,” which focuses on two aristocratic couples (Ken Vest and Penelope Grover, and Ron Hasson and Lynette O’Callaghan), their house servants (Jessica Farmer and Jeremey Weir), and an evening of ever-so-many delightful romantic “misunderstandings.” The segment could easily be the forbearer to “Porky’s” and all ‘80’s sex comedies.
Though the cast really has fun in the story—and embodying the character’s sex crazed attitudes—it’s Ron Hasson who overall steals it. The man is a ball of energy—a cartoon character come to life. The way he prances about the stage, wrings his hands, and pitches his voice gives way to the very presentation of acting the show tries to capture. While Farmer comes in a close second, as an exaggerated Cockney house maid, her screeching wails of sorrow are hilarious.
It is the most well-balanced of the acts, with its pacing never lagging and a lot of its comedy landing. Vest’s “Elvis the Pelvis”-like tick is a sight of comedy gold. However, its hit-or-miss commitment to presentation across the board and its switch of genre manages to stray from the horror-central story. It could have been rooted in comedy while keeping closer to the “Halloween” theme.
The night ends with “The Haunted House,” the most problematic of the three acts. The audience finds upper-echelon society slumming it in a supposed … well, from the title I’m gonna just assume readers can guess. The act suffers from a rambling plot of talking heads. Internally, I kept screaming, “Do something already!” When the action does begin to spark, it’s halted again with exposition dumps. Even the neat twist on the haunted-house genre—which could have really pushed the story into a compelling tale—gets hampered down by long-winded air. At its conclusion, it comes off unfinished.
As with all TheatreNOW shows, a three-course meal is served between the acts, crafted by Chef Denise Gordon. Starting off the evening, a delightful hors d’oeuvre of a cheese-and-vegetable roulade tastes out of this world! I thought frequently upon leaving how I wish my portion was larger. After the first bite, I considered making my way to the kitchen and putting on my best Oliver Twist face to ask for more.
The entrees—three to choose from—consist of pumpkin and yellow curry cauldron, coq au vin (chicken in red-wine sauce), and a French onion soup-based bison burger. All three are rather tasty, but to be honest, readers, I’m just not a fan of curry, and never have been. As it stands to this day, I’m not. Though I do love the taste of a good burger, here, it was a tad overdone for my liking—maybe because it’s bison, which I never tasted. The caramelized onions and Swiss cheese up the flavor of each bite. Of the three, my favorite was the coq au vin, the chicken was perfection, paired with pumpkin-potato puree.
Even though the production has issues, TheatreNOW has reached into the past and brought to Wilmington’s seen the origins for staged horror. Though the stories can be considered outdated, it’s never any less important to dust off classics and see what can be learned from them. It shows us horror fans what can be built off of them. So in that realm, what TheatreNOW has strived for can be seen as a success.