Ho ho horrors: a very macabre Christmas


If you like your humor served black, “A Very Grand Guignol Christmas” offers a refreshingly adults-only alternative to perennial holiday froth. Following in the macabre tradition of the notorious French theater that pioneered the modern horror genre, the show alternates gruesome violence and farce, performed with panache, fierce determination, and impressive physical dexterity by the local self-styled “Andre de Lorde’s Grand Guignolers de Paris.”

The Guignolers are led not by Guignol dramatist de Lorde but by dell’arte and movement specialist Debbie McMahon, who directs and performs in this co-production with the L.A. Physical Theatre Arts Festival. McMahon’s environmental staging sets out to re-create the ambience of 1930s Paris (at the peak of Guignol popularity). Early visitors are regaled by six vaguely sinister clowns and a pre-show demonstration of absinthe preparation -- complete with flaming sugar cube -- conducted in French.

At the show’s core are two authentic short plays from the Guignol oeuvre, performed in a deliberately over-the-top (though not campy) style typical of the period. Both pieces underscore the Guignol’s significance as harbinger of the upended morality and dark psychological alleyways that remain horror staples. “These Cornfields” is vaudevillian slapstick about a smug optimist (Ramy Eletreby) who becomes the punching bag in increasingly violent feuding between a married couple (Jeremy Guskin, Dani O’Terry).


No good deed goes unpunished in “The Laboratory of Hallucinations,” a classic Guignol melodrama of jealousy, revenge and madness involving a pallid asylum doctor (Kevin Dulude) who experiments on a patient (Ruthie Frank) by peeling away layers of brain tissue to explore the boundaries of sanity. Suspecting his wife (Tina Van Berckelaer) of infidelity, he exacts vengeance on the cranium of her hapless lover (Gary Karp).

Gory special effects notwithstanding, the evening’s most artful elements are original creations drawing on the origins of Guignol as a medieval puppet character. McMahon performs the ballet of a life-size (i.e., “Grand”) marionette whose all-too-brief liberation from her strings is set to Saint-Saens’ “Danse Macabre” and later mans a wickedly funny hand-puppet romance about a jeune fille who loses her head to a Gaulois-puffing Lothario.

Tightly choreographed opening and closing ensemble numbers inventively mix frenetic Jazz Age dance and Moulin Rouge chorus steps with an underlying sense of impending doom -- inviting us to ponder the unsettling connections between the psychic undercurrents of an era and its popular art.


“A Very Grand Guignol Christmas,” Art/Works Theatre, 6569 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. 8:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Ends Dec. 22. $15-$25. (323) 871-1912. Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes.

Society abuses the working man

In “Francisco’s Fire,” adapter-director Keith Watabayashi sweeps the essentials of “Woyzeck” into a Hollywood hotel and drags them back out again. This ambitious take on Georg Buch- ner’s trailblazing final play is certainly determined in its survey of working-class desperation.

Published posthumously, “Woyzeck” is an seminal work of German naturalism, influencing everything from Expressionism and Brecht to Tom Waits. The narrative -- societal abuse drives a lowly soldier to madness and murder -- is loosely based on an actual case, but realism was not what Buchner had in mind, and “Fire” follows suit.


The title character (Eli Hernandez) is a Latino immigrant, first seen doing broom duty in the lobby of designer John Toom’s two-level set. Per the original, Francisco endures humiliation by his superiors and nurses jealousy over Marie (Ana Lopes), the mother of his illegitimate child. Her dalliance with a celebrity (Donnell Safford) finally pushes Francisco into violence, with the enigmatic ending echoing the fragmentary nature of Buchner’s unfinished text.

Watabayashi takes great care with his references and prototypes. “Woyzeck’s” bullying captain becomes a condescending hotel manager (Zan Calabretta), the experiment-crazed doctor a pompous staff quack (Mitch Feinstein), and so forth. Lighting designer Anthony Guerrero achieves Stygian effects with limited means, and there’s clearly academic devotion at play.

Yet it’s one thing to update “Woyzeck,” another thing to land its nihilism. The absurdist stylings and topical comment are the opposite of unnerving. Though game, the cast is uneven, Hernandez’s antihero bravely committed without quite compelling, and the needless intermission deflates the tension that does build. Buchner-philes and the curious may be interested, but “Francisco’s Fire” more frequently suggests a revisionist concept for Alban Berg’s operatic version than comprehensive theater.


“Francisco’s Fire,” Dorie Theatre, Complex, 6476 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Dec. 16. $18. (323) 960-4420. Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes

Good-natured fun but superficial

As feel-good musicals about gay guys who drop dead in shopping malls go, “All This, & Heaven Too” is probably at the top of its niche, though admittedly not many contenders come to mind.

This breezy, good-natured but ultimately superficial piece about aging, relationships, and sexual orientation by Bill Dyer (book & lyrics) and Dick Benedictis (music) is somewhat Frank Capra-esque in its retrospection on the value of an individual -- except that this Wonderful Life is definitely over.


Not to worry, though -- death has little sting here. Having already gained entrance to the Pearly Gates, the deceased Boomie (an apt moniker for the full-voiced James Warnock) returns to invisibly witness his friends gather for his wake in a West Hollywood apartment.

In a series of serviceable tunes, the sadder-but-wiser host (Sammy Williams) and his guests cycle through various forms of alienation in a subculture particularly obsessed with youth. Amid an uneven cast, the big-league performance is Kelly Mantle’s uninhibited, statuesque transsexual.

While a few heart-string tugging sequences offer poignant insights into gay lifestyles, others will seem downright bewildering. It’s hard to imagine tuneful nostalgia for the “Gay Old Days” of closeted shame, and there isn’t enough complexity (or harmonizing) in these stock characters to sell it. Even the conflicts are tidily wrapped up.

The most limiting factor here is that the happy endings aren’t earned. Where James Stewart’s George Bailey achieved reconciliation and acceptance of his life only through a dark, troubled journey, Boomie and his friends seem to coast. Their camaraderie is touching, but in the end the piece settles for reassurance over realism.


“All This, & Heaven Too,” Macha Theatre, 1107 N. King’s Road, West Hollywood. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Ends Dec. 30. $30. (323) 960-7776 or Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.

It’s an office, but there’s no party

Perhaps the members of the Lonny Chapman Repertory Group Theatre are still too distracted by the recent death of their theater’s founder, Broadway veteran Lonny Chapman, to focus on the business of mounting a new production.


Chalk it up to grief or transitional pangs or what you will, but the group’s “Desk Set” is painfully deficient in craft.

The action is set in the mid-1950s in a midtown Manhattan broadcasting company, where computer expert Richard Sumner (Robert Gallo) has just been hired to install “electronic brains” in various departments. Herself a bit of a human computer, brilliant Bunny Watson (Michele Bernath), head of the research, fears that the new computer slated for her department will soon displace her and her staunch female staff.

Those fond of the 1957 film of the same name may be disappointed by William Marchant’s play, which despite a healthy Broadway run in the mid-1950s is merely workmanlike. By contrast, the wonderful film adaptation by husband-and-wife writing team Phoebe and Henry Ephron served as a sparkling romantic vehicle for Spencer Tracy, who played the dry, droll Sumner, and Katharine Hepburn, whose brainy Bunny goes toe to toe with her electronic rival and proves that she is indeed indispensable, not only in the office place but in Sumner’s life.

In the play, Bunny winds up not with Richard but with Abe Cutler (played here by Klair Bybee), a company executive who has been stringing Bunny along for years. That’s a letdown, but even so, there’s enough life left in Marchant’s comedy to make for an entertaining evening, given a halfway professional render- ing.

Sadly, with director Doug Engalla at the helm, the potential snap, crackle and pop turns soggy, while Chris Winfield’s anachronistic set is noticeably actor-unfriendly. It doesn’t help that the performers were so shaky on their lines opening weekend or that a boozy office Christmas party has all the merriment of a papal funeral.

One senses that a few of the performers could be better given the chance, but none manages to rise above this generally disappointing offering.



“Desk Set,” Lonny Chapman Repertory Group Theatre, 10900 Burbank Blvd., North Hollywood. 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays (7 p.m. on Dec. 2) Ends Dec. 29. $20. (818) 700-4878. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.