Splinter Group

Before there was Friday the 13th, Psycho, or Bela Lugosi, there was Le Grand Guignol. As popular in the Paris of the late 19th and early 20th centuries as its cinematic counterparts are here today, this now-defunct theater showcased plays that focused on the shocking and macabre. Some were drawn from gothic tales by Edgar Allan Poe and his followers, but more often they were sensationalized adaptations of true crime stories or grotesque farces of marital violence (“guignol” is a puppet of the Punch and Judy sort). The Grand Guignol theater’s lurid morality fables provided inspiration for many of the classic horror films of the 1920s and ’30s, but we use the term Grand Guignol these days only to describe entertainments that are particularly lurid or grisly–until now, with the Splinter Group’s revival of Andre de Lorde’s House of Pain.

This 1916 script, originally titled The Laboratory of Hallucinations, is a rather mild but still representative sample of the Grand Guignol’s repertoire. The brilliant surgeon Dr. Gorlitz, director of his own hospital/asylum, is so obsessed with his research on the brain that he’s indifferent to pain or suffering, in himself and others. Not surprisingly, his lovely, gentle wife, Sonia, prefers the company of the cheerful and handsome archaeologist John De Mora. Dr. Gorlitz learns of his wife’s infidelity at the same moment that an automobile accident delivers his rival into his hands with a severe head injury requiring immediate surgery.

House of Pain includes several accoutrements mandatory to the genre: eerily deformed servants (most notably the hideously maimed Mitchinn, Gorlitz’s lab assistant), a slow-witted underling with a speech defect for comic relief, brutalized patients cringing in terror, Rube Goldberg-like “scientific” apparatus–in this case a primitive X-ray machine powered by, of all things, a bicycle generator–and of course gallons of blood to be splashed about a sickeningly septic operating amphitheater (an effect intensified by the smell of fresh paint in the Splinter Group’s newly renovated space).

The chief obstacle to the success of this museum piece is not modern audiences’ familiarity with these cliches or contempt for the play’s scientific errors but the very element that spelled doom for the original Grand Guignol (and melodramatic spectacles in general)–electric lights. The clear vision they afford an audience, in this case often seated a bare three feet from the stage, makes fooling the eye much more difficult than in a cavernous gas-lit auditorium. And particularly when the audience is accustomed to sophisticated theatrical and cinematic legerdemain.

The Splinter Group’s production works amazingly well, however, under the circumstances. Director Matt O’Brien has tapped into the aesthetic that makes even the most ancient of horror stories enjoyable to the most jaded of audiences. His cast have been instructed to play their roles perfectly straight, commanding our attention and respect as no mere icky-yucky giggle could. Olaf Hartwig, playing the sadistic Dr. Gorlitz, gives his character hints of sensitivity, making his jealousy and desire for revenge human if no less loathsome. (Hartwig’s good looks also help us sympathize with his anguish, though we understand too his wife’s dissatisfaction.) Colette Jackson as Sonia is required to do little more than wail in hysterical despair, and Timothy Hutchings as John to do little more than smile in blissful ignorance before his postoperative plunge into delirium. Illya Haase delivers a remarkably restrained and uncaricatured performance as the disfigured Mitchinn, as does Susan Murphy as Sonia’s eccentric-looking maidservant. David David Katzman, as the obsequious Stitch, does not seem to have found the correct level of creepiness, and Jill Towsley’s Patient Six goes over the top into campy cartoonishness.

Unlike simple spoofs, good parodies are enjoyable in their own right, aside from the satirical dimension. With the exception of a goofy curtain call that breaks the mood generated by the play’s somber denouement, the Splinter Group’s House of Pain is good parody. How long the cast will be able to maintain their integrity in the face of guffawing young audiences remains to be seen, but their effort to remain true to the author’s intent while making his material accessible to modern playgoers is admirable.