If you dare! Venture to the Hypnodrome, home of San Francisco’s Thrillpeddlers. The company is America’s preeminent producer of plays from the Grand Guignol, the infamous Parisian theater that peddled thrills (if you will) from 1897-1962; the Hypnodrome, which seats 45, has been in operation for five years. The brave can choose to sit in "shock boxes" that line the theater’s back row — each box is tricked out with buzzers and other devices designed to lend an extra-sensational experience. These special seats also add enhancement to a Thrillpeddlers tradition: a blackout "spook show" (three minutes of pitch-black mayhem!) that is part of every performance.
This year marks Thrillpeddlers’ 10th "Shocktoberfest," an evening-length show compiling a few short plays. Typical for the company, the current bill combines an original work, Phantom Limb, with an authentic Guignol relic, 1922’s The Torture Garden.
"The Grand Guignol was the first theater to have an operating room onstage, with an on-stage surgery, or to set plays in insane asylums," director Russell Blackwood explains. "They started their work in the theater of naturalism, so they were going to places that the theater would never deal with prior to that." Naturally, Parisian audiences back in the day lapped up the gore — and so do "Hypnodromers," repeat offenders who see every Thrillpeddlers show six or seven times.
Shocktoberfest 2009 shares marquee space with a newer, non-Grand Guignol Thrillpeddlers endeavor: the "Theater of the Ridiculous Revival." The second annual incarnation features the musical Pearls Over Shanghai, first performed 40 years ago by legendary San Francisco theater troupe the Cockettes. It’s been a huge hit, extended from its summertime run through New Year’s weekend.
Thrillpeddlers is now known worldwide, thanks in part to its Web sites, thrillpeddlers.com and grandguignol.com — resources that have inspired other companies to take up the Grand Guignol. If Blackwood has his way, spines will be tingled in San Francisco and beyond for years to come.
"Spook shows, like Grand Guignol, like Theater of the Ridiculous, are this very, very marginal part of entertainment history. It’s the kind of thing that when I would read about it, I would want to see it, and I couldn’t help but feel like there were other people out there who maybe had heard of it and would want to see what it was like live," Blackwood says, with the satisfaction of someone who’s found what he was looking for.
>>GOLDIES 2009: The 21st Guardian Outstanding Local Discovery awards, honoring the Bay’s best in arts