SIX MINIATURE TRAGEDIES
by Jean-Paul Wenzel
Studio 58 / Langara College and PuSh,
January 26-February 12
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As part of France’s contribution to this year’s PuSh Festival, Parisian playwright Jean-Paul Wenzel has directed the students of Studio 58, along with alumni professionals Kerry Sandomirsky and Tom McBeath, in his Six Miniature Tragedies, an evening of nasty, violent, morbid, over-the-top playlets. Not really tragedies at all, they represent instead a century-old French theatrical form that seems familiar because it’s come down to us not so much through theatre as through film: specifically, the horror/slasher flick.
The genre is Grand Guignol, so named after Oscar Metenier’s Parisian theatre, founded in 1897, that went the naturalists of the era one better by featuring evenings of short plays in which melodramatic violence was presented in as extreme and sensational a way as possible. Insanity, sex and graphic physical pain, gouged eyeballs, mutilated corpses and more were its stock in trade, with stage blood splashing everywhere.
Maybe because he’s working with students, Wenzel has toned down his 21st century Grand Guignol so that it’s practically tasteful. Although a meat cleaver is prominent in the playlet called “The Butcher,” and there is indeed butchery in it and in a few of the others—including one in which a woman kills her lover, then cooks him up for dinner and feeds him to her husband—the violence is entirely verbal.
As if to compensate for the absence of extreme physicality, Wenzel ramps up the volume. In the opening scenario, “Mado and Her Two Children,” Sandomirsky plays a jilted wife gone psycho. She blames her two young children for their father’s leaving her. Clothes askew, dirty hair hanging in her face, she screams at them for the duration of the monologue, threatening to slice them up with her long, sharp knife. Because the children are played by the entire corps of actors rather than two individuals, the awfulness of the threat is slightly alleviated. But she’s still pretty scary and the effect is appropriately horrible, setting the tone for the rest of the show.
The student actors who have been directed to play their exasperation, rage or neurosis at the very top of their range tend to be less successful. And the pitfalls of that approach are highlighted by McBeath’s performance in “Salt in the Soup.” With the dead body of his mistress lying across the table in front of him, McBeath plays a demented 82-year-old who suspects her of having tried to poison him by salting his soup and feeding him mussels for Christmas! So he did her in first. Though he makes the character’s paranoia very clear, McBeath reins him in physically and vocally so that we feel he might genuinely explode at any moment. The result is more powerful and much more scary than if he had yelled it all.
I have to say that I really enjoyed most of this show despite—or perhaps because of—its excesses. I’m a great fan of Jacobean revenge tragedy, which shares many of the qualities of Grand Guignol, as does Shakespeare’s early Senecan potboiler, Titus Andronicus, which we’ll see in Vancouver later this month. I don’t think I agree with the notion, implied in the choral song at the end, “The kiss of death hides in children’s eyes,” that violence is innate in all of us. But I like a good theatrical bloodbath every so often just as much as any of you other perverts out there.