Theater review: ‘Absinthe, Opium and Magic’ at Art/Works Theatre


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Opium smuggling, gangsters, prostitution and corruption make Shanghai circa 1920 an irresistible vacation spot for the Grand Guignolers, L.A.’s faux ‘20s Parisian troupe inspired by the notorious French theater. Creator/director Debbie McMahon’s highly entertaining immersive staging, ‘Absinthe, Opium and Magic: 1920s Shanghai,’ transforms the Art/Works environs into a fanciful shipboard voyage to the era’s international capitol of decadence.

Exploring the less wholesome appetites of the psyche has always been near and dear to the hearts of these macabre purveyors of horror and humor. But in four inventively interlocking segments showcasing her unique stylistic fusion of Grand Guignol with commedia dell’arte, puppetry, music and dance, McMahon and her hard-working ensemble also offer some (literally) sharp-edged social commentary.


Subjugation of Shanghai’s famed high-end courtesans informs ‘Sing Song Girl Sings Last Song,’ McMahon’s poignant ballet about a top earner (Tina Van Berckelaer) seeking a stable albeit still-captive retirement; also noteworthy is Amanda Street’s ambitious novice, who, in jaded shades of ‘All About Eve,’ tries to usurp her crown. Well-intoned narration by Dani O’Terry adds well-researched historical backdrop, though explanation of the characters’ inner states is unnecessary given the expressive physicalized storytelling.

In ‘The Cabinet of Hands,’ a new Grand Guignol-style shocker by Chris Bell (also the scenic designer), a tourist (Robin Long) comes to regret her Western arrogance when she visits a ‘quaint’ opium den run by Kevin Dulude’s creepy Madame, who charges only a bit less than an arm and a leg.

Les Petits Guignolers -- McMahon’s signature bawdy finger puppets -- enact an amusingly heady (and headless) plunge into Sartre’s existential maxim that ‘hell is other puppets.’

McMahon’s whimsical dance performance as ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ -- replete with magic tricks, giant rabbit, and human broomsticks -- ties together elements from the preceding sequences and wraps up the formal show. Not to be missed, though, is the equally polished interactive pre-show, which includes singing by silver-throated Dinah Steward and a flashlight-wielding chorus salute to Busby Berkeley. Cocktail attire is encouraged to enhance the party atmosphere -- all in all, the most fun you’re likely to have at a decapitation.

-- Philip Brandes

‘Absinthe, Opium and Magic: 1920s Shanghai,’ Art/Works Theatre, 6569 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles. 8:30 p.m. (pre-show at 8) Fridays and Saturdays, see website for additional dates. Ends Jan. 3. $20-30 (pay-what-you-can Dec. 30 door only). (800) 838-3006 or Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes.