Lonni Olson, Anna Barker and Jennifer Lynn Bain in Crime in the Madhouse. Photo Credit – Teresa Rehmann Photography.
Final Kiss/These Cornfields/ Crime in the Madhouse
October 25 – November 2, 2013
Birds and Stone Theatre
Tickets at the Door – 8pm show
In a black-walled basement space echoing with the sounds of screams and creaky doors, an ashen-faced, humourless nun in full habit approached me in my seat. “Time for your medication”, she announced in a deadpan voice while holding out a tray of Dixie cups full of little white pellets. I looked around at the other audience members who seemed as creepily amused by this as I was. I downed the tablets (Tic Tacs in case you were worried) and settled in for what I hoped would be a campy, scary, fun Halloween experience. This was Grand Guignol theatre after all.
Final Kiss/These Cornfields/ Crime in the Madhouse is a trio of performances brought to us by Organized Crime Productions in the style of the early 1900’s Theatre du Grand Guignol based in Paris. Purposefully written for maximum shock value, productions at the Grand Guignol theatre were meant to horrify, shock, sicken, amuse and titillate. An evening’s performance was usually a three play affair beginning with a fear-inducing grisly piece, followed by a sleazy sex farce as a kind of palate cleanser and concluded with a return to horror that was not considered a success unless several patrons literally fainted with fear or disgust.
Fast forward a century later and add in the pervasiveness of horror flicks, our bombardment by violent images at every turn and the thick skin we’ve grown as a result, and it takes more than scary theatre to make us collapse. But just because we remain very conscious throughout Final Kiss/These Cornfields/ Crime in the Madhouse (all based on original Guignol plays) doesn’t mean there isn’t disturbing fun to be had along the way in this somewhat uneven but wonderfully designed and directed seventy-minute production.
Whether it’s the tense story of man whose face was burned off in an acid attack by his former fiancée (Final Kiss), the tiresome, unfunny farce about a feuding couple (These Cornfields) or the truly gruesome story of a young woman trapped in a madhouse with those that wish her harm (Crime in the Madhouse), Director Alice Nelson shows her confidence. Guignol theatre is by nature melodrama and Nelson keeps it palatable with simple staging, letting the story itself be the action even in the most ghastly of scenes. Or perhaps its Serena Snively’s wonderful makeup that ranges from grey pallor with sunken eyes to …well… no eyes at all that’s the real accomplishment here. Either way, visually this is a production that easily rivals what passes for gory effects on larger stages.
The cast (six in all) who all play double or triple duty in the performances had some disappointments but was more notable for the actors that stood out. Jennifer Lynn Bain as Mrs. Cornfield and a madhouse patient both in the final play and as stage dressing prior to the performance was fascinating in all her ticks, disturbances and vengefulness. Anna Barker as the acid throwing fiancée, a sexy maid and the young woman in the madhouse stunned with her ability to cry and plead with guilt or fear seem both natural and upsetting. There is nothing more exciting than finding new talent on stage and if this performance is any indication, Barker is one to watch.
But the most entertaining flashes came not during one of the three mini-plays, but in the moments in between. Twice the audience was treated to a short puppet show performed by Alice Nelson and written by Kelleen Conway Blanchard. Foul-mouthed, darkly inappropriate and hysterical, these puppet skits stole the show and were a nice counter balance to the varying degrees of success the more formal plays enjoyed.
This is most certainly not a show for everyone and even those attracted to the experience will find fault. But Final Kiss/These Cornfields/ Crime in the Madhouse is silly/creepy fun done well and a great way to celebrate the Halloween season.
For those that like to be disturbed – There are some good psychologically disquieting moments in this production and the gore factor is impressively present. SEE IT
For the squeamish – The moments sans gore are not so compelling that this is an experience you need to push yourself through. SKIP IT
For the occasional theater goer – Think of this like a short story version of theatre. If that appeals and you’re up for the off-kilter content, this may work for you. MAYBE SEE IT
For theatre junkies – Guignol is not exactly excellent theater, there are weaknesses in the cast and the farce is a misstep. But the production is impressive as are some of the performances. MAYBE SEE IT