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THEATER REVIEW

The Freakish 'Madame Guignol'

October 30, 1998|ROBERT KOEHLER

In her third annual Halloween visit to Orange County, Madame Guignol has a cheery, bracing adage for us to chew on: "Love turns us all into freaks."

The Hunger Artists' 1998 edition of "Madame Guignol's Macabre Theatre: Carnival of the Damned" (subtitled in the spirit of the British Hammer Films studio known for its cheesy horror movies) is situated in a carny freak show.

Set designer Melissa Petro has created vivid carny posters (check out the ghoulish "Hand of Death"), and mistress of ceremonies Guignol starts off with a parade of freaks. (Funniest by far are Damon Hill and Mark Palkoner as Rod and Todd, conjoined twins with attitude.)

But the setup is misleading. Rather than imitate the L.A.-based Actors' Gang and its memorable "Freaks," director Kelly Flynn presents a spin on an evening with TV's raven-haired Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. The almost raven-haired Jenn Ortiz, as Guignol, introduces five tales--by Flynn, Petro, Mike Cahill and Adam Martin--by arguing that we're all freaks.

Cahill's "Andy," in which Dru Obade's nurse goes postal for her love of Hill's hapless doctor, is a whirlwind of overheated melodrama that spins too fast to be scary. After a woman dies during a miscarriage, Scott Parks' husband murders the doc in anger; the nurse murders the husband and then turns the gun on herself.

Martin's "Old Man" comes the closest to a successfully funny-scary story. Hill is the title character, who runs a hotel with his bellhop (the always energetic Mark Coyan). Their latest prey is a newlywed couple (Martin and Obade) drawn into sexual games and a new spin on vampirism. Hill is wonderfully over-the-top, the veins on his glistening bald head nearly bursting, and the blood effects--what we're really here for--flow.

While the other stories race by, Flynn's "Nemesis" drags on with a soporific debate between a screaming, tortured prisoner (Coyan) and a monk (Parks), who believes the prisoner is the devil's agent. It's merely an excuse to have Parks wagging around Coyan's bloody, ripped-off digits.

Petro's "The Puppet" comes and goes with barely a trace: Guignol herself has such control over servile, hypnotized William (Parks again) that he slices himself up with a knife on command.

This is the kind of power Prof. Hopkins (Martin) hopes to have over Alicia (Jami McCoy), whom he's just brought back from the African jungle in Flynn's "My Feral Lady." The British accents and performances are badly arch, excepting Shannon C.M. Flynn's as smooth sophisticate Lady Carfax, who learns too late that it's not nice to fool with Mother Nature. In a room of British snobs versus a feral girl, whom do you think would win?

And that's the problem. This year's show brings the audience closer to the action than last year's did, interspersing the stage areas with the audience and creating a nearly arena effect, heightened by Lonnie R. Alcaraz' piercing lights. But a ghoulish predictability nevertheless descends, deflating the creepiness.

Like last year's show, this cast and these production values fall too short to give us the willies as we go back out into the night.

* "Madame Guignol's Macabre Theatre: Carnival of the Damned," Hunger Artists Theatre, 204 E. 4th St., Santa Ana. 8:30 p.m. tonight-Saturday, 7:30 p.m. Sunday. $10-$12. Ends Sunday. (714) 547-9100. Running time: 1 hour, 10 minutes.

Jenn Ortiz: Madame Guignol

Damon Hill: Rod/Dr. Cassidy/Old Man

Scott Parks: Sampson/Crowley/Zealot/William

Mark Coyan: Carnie/Bellhop/Prisoner

Dru Obade: Lizard Woman/Mary/Nyna

Adam Martin: Glen R. Glenda/Jules/Prof. Hopkins

Shannon C.M. Flynn: Zarda/Lady Carfax

Jami McCoy: Wild Girl/Alicia

Mark Palkoner: Todd/Lord Arden

A Hunger Artists production, written by Kelly Flynn, Mike Cahill, Adam Martin and Melissa Petro. Director: Kelly Flynn. Set: Petro. Lights: Lonnie R. Alcaraz. Sound: Robbin E. Broad. Costumes/props: Kimberly M. Fisher and cast.

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