San Francisco is a city of glistening surfaces -- a mad display of wealth, talent, and inspiration. Thrillpeddlers theater company, which produces its own crazed vision of the "Grand Guignol" style -- think of Hammer Studios at its kitschy goriest, only on stage -- possesses a similar brashness to the city the 17-year-old company calls home, though in a kind of underground theater way. What connects this city and this company is a commitment to the sensational, a belief in the outlandish gesture, and a headlong rush to the spectacular ending that negates everything that comes before it.
It’s an aesthetic that’s meant to disgust and please, and the four one-act plays Thrillpeddlers presents in the latest edition of its annual Halloween celebration of the sick and depraved, Shocktoberfest 17: Pyramid of Freaks, do so with varying degrees of success.
Yet, all four works are remarkably similar in effect. The first two, The Haunted House and The Hellgrammite Method, aren’t much as plays: the former is just a few sketchily written scenes on its way to a violent, bloody end; and the latter, originally written for the revival of The Twilight Zone television series, makes an awkward transition to the stage.
What’s surprising is that the leads in both of the first two plays, James Jeske in The Haunted House and Dan Foley in The Hellgrammite Method, are tremendous. They rise above the unconvincing writing and shaky supporting casts to take on every single moment as if it were of the most vital importance. One might say that it’s the consolation of excellence no matter where it might appear. And the effect -- the balance between the slipshod and the inspired -- both haunts and damns the entire evening.
Thrillpeddlers has a terrific reputation. Audiences and critics at The San Francisco Chronicle, SF Weekly, and KQED Arts find the company's mixture of louche horror and high-octane camp a delight. I’m not so sure. And the issues, at least for me, become a great deal murkier in the second half of the program. The plays, Demon Train to Sodom and Pyramid of Freaks, are much better. The overall acting is much more consistent, but the failures of production and execution veer into real nastiness.