Since 1999, Thrillpeddlers, a San Francisco-based theatre company, have been adapting the infamous plays of Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol, a unique French theatre specializing in twisted, perverted horror shows with plenty of gore, nudity, comedy and sheer, unadulterated obscenity. No matter how desensitized you may be to shock value entertainment, odds are you’ll find at least one or two clasp-your-hand-across-your-mouth-and-wonder-if-they-really-just-did-that moments at Thrillpeddlers’ Halloween anthology show, Shocktoberfest 17.
Thrillpeddlers promised the audience an “Extravaganza of Terror and Titillation,” and they weren’t being hyperbolic. The show was divided into four short plays, sharing a gutsy rotating cast that oscillates wonderfully between chilling, self-serious performances, and unbridled irreverence and campiness.
The larger-than-life show far exceeds the size of the venue itself. Seating just a few dozen, the Hypnodrome has served as Thrillpeddlers’ home for nearly two decades, and the intimacy of the venue is a tremendous boon to the production’s shock value. With its entrance placed in the back of a small, non-descript building under an expressway exit in SoMa, it was hard to imagine that anything portrayed at this scale could truly be as visceral or frightening as advertised.
From the outside, the Hypnodrome could hardly be less noticeable. As soon as the lights dimmed, however, the realization set in. There is no escape from what you are about to see, as even a bathroom break would prove impossibly disruptive to the show due to the proximity of the audience to the performers. Their use of lighting and practical effects was particularly effective for the low-budget nature of the show, maximizing the effectiveness of their limited space to perform. With a couple of minor set changes in transition, and some focused lighting, they do just enough to suspend your disbelief as they jump from location to location.
Despite the exceptionally light-hearted tone of the majority of the show, it dips into some true disturbia– most notably, in “The Hellgramite Method,” by Bill Selby (the story was originally a 1988 episode of “The Twilight Zone,” also written by Selby). The short play follows the story of Miley Judson, a deadbeat drunk father and husband on the cusp of his last chance at sobriety and a happy, healthy family. The last chance? A supposedly miraculous treatment that brings grave consequences with its failure. Dan Foley’s portrayal of Judson is an achingly pathetic one, played with just enough dignity and perseverance that one can’t help but become invested in his grueling rehabilitation. Foley’s gut-wrenching screams in combination with a filmed depiction of his psyche projected on the wall behind him makes for some delightfully harrowing entertainment.
In fact, “delightfully harrowing” can summarize most of Shocktoberfest 17. Even at their most comedic in “Demon Train To Sodom” and “Pyramid of Freaks,” there is hardly a comfortable moment in the entire production. Both plays open with seemingly traditional spooky stories of a deceptively sweet family farm and a lovable group of carnival freaks, respectively. Just as soon as each, traditional campfire story setup lulls you into a sense of narrative security, both plays take a turn for the chaotically bizarre and obscene. “Demon Train To Sodom” in particular is a sinfully sex-crazed acid trip that culminates in an NC-17 interspecies cabaret number that will absolutely confirm you live in San Francisco. The mounting tension and dread built by the first two plays is thrown by the wayside, as the comedy of the second half of Shocktoberfest is guaranteed to leave you more shocked and affronted than any of the show’s traditional horror offers.
Be it the graphic simulation of sex acts, or the gross-out horror, your enjoyment will depend on your personal tolerance and taste for such outlandish obscenity. It’s been a while since I’ve had my boundaries tested like this, and yet I could hardly wipe the smile from my face.
Thrillpeddlers Presents: Shocktoberfest 17
575 10th St
Weekly shows until Nov. 19th
Tickets available at thrillpeddlers.com
Photo Credits: David Allen/ Thrillpeddlers