Those who have dared to venture into the grimy, blood-stained corner of theatrical history occupied by the Grand Guignol French Theatre of Horror tradition might know that the success of these productions was originally gauged by the number of audience members who passed out due to shock or disgust during the performance. For those who have not, consider yourselves advised. This skin-crawling, blood-curdling era—which climaxed in the 1920s-30s—captivated late-modern theatre goers seeking thrills above all.
…it is a first and foremost a horror show, and is thus rightfully spewing with horrifying themes—violence, lust, betrayal, and brutal death.
In our postmodern era, it attracts a smaller niche audience, having been superseded in many ways by its cinematic progeny. The Molotov Theatre in Washington, D.C. is one of the few faithful keepers of the Grand Guignol, asserting its enduring power to jolt, arouse, and perplex. And though their latest cabaret production, Blood, Sweat and Fears, directed by Alex Zavistovich and Elliott Kashner, may not eke out a single fainter from today’s thick-skinned audiences, that doesn’t mean it’s not working.
It would be unfair not to explicitly warn, as Molotov does at the outset of Blood, Sweat and Fears, that this production is not for the faint of heart or the young of age. Though not light on levity, it is a first and foremost a horror show, and is thus rightfully spewing with horrifying themes—violence, lust, betrayal, and brutal death. Viewers are advised to take stock of their tastes and tolerances and know what they’re getting into. For the right person this show is a riot, but for the wrong one it could be ravaging.
The cabaret contains three segments. The first, The Lighthouse Keepers, starts out in a cold, isolated tower in the middle of a raging storm, where a father and son are plunged into maddening circumstances that threaten their lives and deepest loyalties. The second, Tics—or Doing the Deed, offers a lighter second course, indulging the most scandalous proclivities of the time when it throws out the social rule book on everything that should and shouldn’t happen when two young couples get together for a respectable tea. The last, The Final Kiss, turns up the dial on textbook horror and suspense when a mutilated man fights his rage toward his remorseful assailant wife.
Blood, Sweat and Fears’ triad of tantalizing tales is served up as if performed live in a Roaring Twenties speakeasy, presided over by a salacious tease, Bella Donna (Mallory Shear), and strung together by a disconcertingly soothing Chanteuse (Jen Bevan), who satirically croons top jazz and blues ballads like “Someone to Watch Over Me” and “Dream a Little Dream of Me” in between each vignette. Shear and Bevan offer a satisfying balance of poise and pretension that keeps the audience oscillating between roaring laughter and a cool stupor. I especially enjoyed Shear’s relentless taunting of an unfortunate man in the front row, who she insisted was the spitting image of her third late husband (or was it the fourth?). As the production flips from one tale to the next, “off duty” actors are sidelined to candle-lit, round tables on either side of the stage where they join the audience as speakeasy spectators.
Each panel in this triptych of a cabaret was vivid and memorable. The first and last felt the most suspenseful, a prized characteristic of the Grand Guignol style. But what Tics lacked in plot twists it made up for in slapstick humor, which probably served to raise audience vulnerability to the shock of The Final Kiss. It was difficult to choose standout actors in such a colorful and confident cast, but I was especially impressed with Brian Kraemer, who managed to display the torturous onset of madness and the ridiculous antics of a snooty-turned-love-struck butler all in one night, and David Dieudonne and Fabiolla Da Silva, who sustained an erratic suspense, drawing out an agonizing game of emotional hot potato that kept the audience guessing to the very end. If pushed to make a critique, perhaps the bubbling chemistry I expected to witness between/among the couples of Tics could use a bit more fermentation.
The hole-in-the-wall space tucked away in the stern of the D.C. Arts Center felt like a natural setting for a divey night club from the moment you pull back the curtain to find your seat. That, combined with a simple versatile set by Mary Seng and tasteful application of (mostly dim) lighting by Pete Vargo and makeup and costumes by Janis Heffron and Jesse Shipely, easily carried the audience back to the Roaring Twenties and then from there to an isolated lighthouse, a country estate, and a halfway house. Effective stage management by Sara K. Smith made these otherwise rattling transitions feel smooth and inconsequential. Jazzy piano accompaniment composed by Gregory Thomas Martin and unassumingly performed by Jill Parsons completed a subduing ambiance.
In this binge-watching era that condenses the intensity of horror and drama to the big (and often very small) screen, the raw, live exhibition of Grand Guignol productions like Blood, Sweat and Fears still holds its special place. Of course, it really all depends on what you’re looking for.
Running Time: 85 minutes, with no intermission.
Advisory: This production contains graphic violence and adult themes and is not recommended for children.
Blood, Sweat and Fears continues through July 31 at the D.C. Theatre Center in Adams Morgan, Washington, D.C. For tickets, visit online.