SANTA ANA — About the only place the tradition of Grand Guignol is carried on today is in the movies, where the ante on outlandish violence and unspeakable acts is raised every year to new fanciful extremes.
On stage, the last time bodies were shoved down a woodchopper, as in "Fargo," or we saw flailing severed torsos and decapitations, as in the upcoming "Starship Troopers," was, well, at the turn of the century in Paris' underground theater/arts scene, where outraging the bourgeoisie was de rigueur.
Besides, those were pre-cinema audiences who liked their violence and violations as long as they were outrageously fake. You might think that a buckets-of-blood approach to theater would be impossible now, or at least, impossible to find. But you'd be wrong.
The Hunger Artists (newly relocated from Costa Mesa to the downtown Santa Ana Arts Village) are continuing their Halloween-time series, "Madame Guignol's Macabre Theatre," which started last year at the Iansati Art Studio.
The new entry, subtitled, "The Funeral of Dr. Boufant," is pretty odd business.
It seems that Dr. Boufant (Damon Hill), overcome by his bizarre experiments on patients in his insane asylum, blinds himself and dies. Now revived at his funeral by Madame Guignol (who so quickly appears and vanishes that she barely makes an impression), Boufant rises to encounter his grieving daughter, Mademoiselle Boufant (Melissa Petro), who refuses to accept that her father has done grisly, depraved "tests" on the human body and psyche.
Six scenes, uneasily woven into the funerary setting by director Shannon C.M. Flynn, attempt to demystify the disbelieving daughter. We in the audience need no convincing, whereas Petro's daughter often feels like Agent Scully from the "The X-Files" in one of her irritatingly skeptical moods.
Hill's brief but disturbing "Triage" shows the bad doctor's horrific handling of wartime soldiers, while Quinton Powell's "Coming Out on Top" does some nasty things with bandages. Gil Fuhrer's "Ramone Awakes" demonstrates how Boufant turns one fellow (Mark Coyan, in the show's most imaginative, physical performance) into his true animal self--in Ramone's case, a cat.
Sean Cox's overwrought "Black, White, Red" depicts a Boufant patient playing a life-or-death game of chess with his brother, with predictably tragic results. Kelly Flynn serves up the two most Guignolesque scenes with "Dream Lover" and "Lilith," which show how far Boufant has gone with mind control, as well as the nasty things that happen when you get injected with spider larvae.
By the end, the freaked-out Mademoiselle is a believer, but writer Tom Hensley's closing funeral scene loses control of the show's themes, and has Russell Dunn's subdued priest suddenly turn into some agent of Beelzebub--apparently leading us into the next (Halloween?) episode, titled, perhaps, "Dr. Boufant Goes to Hell."
Obviously, this kind of material requires both technical legerdemain and strong, commanding actors. Flynn's production generally lacks both.
The horror effects are, sad to say, fairly lame--though Flynn leaves her best effect for the end, with a comically vivid eye-gouging. Hill hardly suggests Boufant's inner demons, while Petro doesn't project the daughter's deep pathos. After Coyan, Kelly Flynn's Huxley comes closest to the crazed, physical dynamic this show needs.
The right mix of Parisian ghoulishness comes, instead, from the blend of footlights (care of Cox and Flynn), Dunn's scenic design which fills the room with crimson red, and Petro's upstage stained-glass window.
* "Madame Guignol's Macabre Theatre: The Funeral of Dr. Boufant," the Hunger Artists' Theatre Space, 204 E. 4th St., Suite I, Santa Ana. 8:30 p.m. Friday-Sunday. Ends Sunday. $10. (714) 547-9100. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.
Damon Hill: Dr. Boufant
Melissa Petro: Mademoiselle Boufant
Russell Dunn: Priest
Kelly Flynn: Huxley
Mark Coyan: Ramone
Sean Cox: Soldier
Jenn Ortiz: Elena
Tom Hensley: Assistant
Kimberly Fisher: Alsace
A Hunger Artists production of a play with scenes by Tom Hensley, Damon Hill, Quinton Powell, Gil Fuhrer, Sean Cox and Kelly Flynn. Directed by Shannon C.M. Flynn. Set: Dunn. Lights: Cox and Shannon C.M. Flynn.