‘Another Night of Grand Guignol’ gets the weird going for the witching season

Another Night of Grand Guignol, the latest from Rhea Amos’s Pandemic Collective playing at Denver’s Theater 29, is a throwback to another age and place.

This is Pandemic’s fifth presentation of material from Grand Guignol, so what is it? The program notes address the question this way:

“Highly stylized and steeped in gore, Le Théâtre du Grand Guignol was a Victorian theatre in Paris that specialized in showcasing the most outrageous, gory and shocking horror theatre in the world.”

Pandemic’s production focuses on two plays from the era, Beacon and The Torture Garden. Each feature a live, three-piece band tucked stage-left providing an ongoing underscore to the action as well as pre-show and intermission music. The band, Sleep Wake, is pretty interesting and plays quiet and creepy electric guitar originals accompanied by a woman on bass and flute and a guy on a drum.

It’s an interesting backdrop to the action onstage and generally pretty effective (although the volume did step on a few lines in the first play.)

Beacon

The first play, Beacon is only about 20 minutes long and features Terry Burnsed as Byron, a deranged lighthouse keeper who’s turning the job over to a younger man after 35 years keeping the lamp lit in a remote area.

It doesn’t take long for the fresh-faced new guy, Michael (Charles Ewing) to realize the cool job at the lighthouse will probably be anything but. Byron has steamer trunks full of baggage, some from personal tragedy and one particular incident seared into his mind about one night when he let the light go out.

Oopsy.

Burnsed is tremendous in this role as a shattered man skating along the edge of sanity. Ewing, too, is convincing as the lighthouse innocent about to get a lesson in the emotional damage that can result from too many years alone on a windy, rainy rock.

The set is spare, with only some kind of scaffold contraption up center. It’s loaded with a tangle of wires meant to depict the lighthouse’s inner workings, and the fact that it resembles a guillotine is evidence enough that it will likely be instrumental in something awful around the corner.

In reading a little more about the original Grand Guignol, I learned that the shows typically mixed in comedy with the horror — a “hot and cold shower” to keep people from getting too freaked out. Beacon has a few moments that had the audience laughing, particularly in places where Michael repeatedly presses Byron for some — any— information about how to work the damn light and Byron’s addled replies. “Maybe this blue wire, no, maybe it’s the red one” — that kind of thing.

Byron’s electronic guillotine is soon brought to bear on the unfortunate soul, leaving poor Michael in the dark, literally, scrambling for a match to warn an approaching ship of the rocks in its path.

It may not end well.

Ewww: Rehearsing the eyeball enucleation scene from ‘The Torture Garden’

The Torture Garden

After a musical interlude from Sleep Wake, a larger cast takes the stage for The Torture Garden. In this one, Ewing is back as Marchal — a twitchy passenger on a ship helmed by Burnsed as the pipe-smoking Captain. Hart DeRose plays Clara, a horny bon vivant of sorts who pursues Marchal as the latest in a string of sexual conquests.

Based on an 1899 novel by Octave Mirbeau, The Torture Garden plays as more of a melodramatic sex farce than a horror play. It’s very silly in places, with a lot of over-dramatic takes and bits that help underscore that we’re not meant to take it all too seriously. Although, make no doubt, there’s horror ahead.

Also on the ship with Clara and Marchal are Kian Way as The Prince and Bradley Abeyta as a drunk sorta hick named Muller. There’s a fair amount of arguing and fighting and at one point The Prince goes overboard at the hands of Marchal.

The scene changes and now we’re in China (I’m a little fuzzy about how all this happened), where Clara wants to check out a place where torture is practiced as an art form. There we meet Ti (Calista Masters) who turns out to be the head torturer. She’s in cahoots with another woman named Han (OD Duhu) who inexplicably wears a heavy red overcoat and serves as a sort of torture double agent.

One thing leads to another and Ti is flaying herself, torturing others and flitting about as her alter ego “The Green Dragon.” Masters, last seen on the Theater 29 stage in The Never Summer, is delightfully weird and funny, as are DeRose and Ewing whose ongoing affair is alternately steamy and ridiculous. The two of them really form the core of the play, and if you look at it as more of a basic farce, The Torture Garden — a pair of gory scenes notwithstanding — is pretty enjoyable as a theatrical romp with a fair number of laughs.

Together, Pandemic’s pair of French oddities make for an enjoyably odd night of theatre. Things aren’t that terribly gory, but be prepared to have a few curveballs thrown at you. It’s a hallmark of the production companies working out of Theater 29: One never quite knows what to expect.