It’s Halloween season at last, a time of year when San Francisco really shines, despite the encroaching autumnal shortening of days. In fact, during the day, it’s almost hard to remember that it’s October at all, what with all of those music and street festivals soaking up the rays, but once night falls, it belongs very definitely to darker entertainments, a realm in which San Francisco excels. One of the season’s most reliable harbingers are the Thrillpeddlers and their patented evenings of Grand Guignol spectacle, Shocktoberfest!
Since 1999, Shocktoberfest has become part of the definition of Halloween in San Francisco, a ritual gathering ground for freaks, geeks, and ghouls. And although Thrillpeddlers have become synonymous with their glittery Theatre of the Ridiculous remounts in recent years, it’s their epic Grand Guignol revivals that first defined the tenebrous thrills being peddled, albeit combined with a playful wink. Shocktoberfest fare has always included bloody murder ballads and bawdy Victorian sex farces on one bill, usually four to five in an evening, and in addition to remounting classic Grand Guignol plays translated from the original French, they also recruit local playwrights to pen more contemporary pieces in the same throbbing vein.
Opening this year’s Shocktoberfest with a fleshy wallop, A Visit to Mrs. Birch and the Young Ladies of the Academy (Scene One), features not Mrs. Birch so much as her namesake discipline, meted out with great relish to a peeping maid (Julia McArthur) by a troupe of naughty schoolgirls. “That sheds some light on the Victorian psyche,” comments director Russell Blackwood drolly as he introduces the centerpiece play, Jack the Ripper.
Originally written in 1934 by André de Lorde and Pierre Chaine, the play manages to do in 45 minutes what 125 years worth of speculation has failed to do — solve the mysterious 1888 serial killing spree in London’s Whitechapel district. Norman Macleod as the overwhelmed Scotland Yard inspector, Smithson, cuts a jaded world-weary figure, desperate at all costs to capture the elusive killer, and Bruna Palmeiro plays the tough and terrified bait for his Ripper trap, Jenny Wickers, with trembling conviction and unfortunate consequences.
De Lorde’s London is a shadowy world of amoral men and monsters, with very little separating them, shrouded by the fog that obscures their most violent actions from the watchful eyes of the streets. Embodying aspects of each, John Flaw’s misunderstood yet unrepentant Jekyll and Hyde persona wears menace like an overcoat even when stripped to his long johns and trussed up in a straitjacket, insisting to the end that it’s not his fault, a touch of humanizing vulnerability.
After a sexy, slapstick song-and-dance routine Salome, penned by Scrumbly Koldewyn and directed by Noah Haydon (who also plays sinuous Salome), the evening ends with frequent Thrillpeddlers collaborator Rob Keefe’s The Wrong Ripper. Set in San Francisco during the headline-grabbing trials of alleged killer Theodore Durrant (who was eventually convicted and hanged despite his assertions of innocence), the story is as much a comment on sensation-seeking journalism as on serial murder, and how each shape our particular world view.
Side plots involving hot girls (Noah Haydon, Tina Sogliuzzo, Bruna Palmiero) pining for Durrant (Kai Brothers), an adorably schlubby cat burglar (John Flaw) and his haunted girlfriend (Julia McArthur), and an earnest young beat cop (TJ Buswell) afraid of the dark, tug the play in multiple directions, some more fully realized than others, but a signature blood-soaked plot device hearkens back to the Grand Guignol’s brutally naturalistic roots, and as always, the lights-out finale provides the oddience with a chance to scream out loud, a reviving release.
Through Nov. 23, Thu-Sat, 8pm, $30-35
575 10th Street, SF
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