Thrillpeddlers' Annual Theatrical Bloodbath High on Guts, Low on Art

David Bicha is the murderous heart throb Tozzini in the Thrillpeddlers' production of 'Pyramid of Freaks' by Rob Keefe. (Photo: David Allen)

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.

(L to R) Dan Foley as an out of control alcoholic and CJ Smith as his mysterious doctor in the Thrillpeddlers' production of 'The Hellgrammite Method' by William Selby.
(L to R) Dan Foley as an out of control alcoholic and CJ Smith as his mysterious doctor in the Thrillpeddlers' production of 'The Hellgrammite Method' by William Selby. (Photo: David Allen)

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.

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Scrumbly Koldewyn, an original founder of the legendary theatrical pranksters the Cockettes and a regular Thrillpeddlers collaborator, has more than a few tricks up his sleeve. His play, Demon Train to Sodom, liberally sprinkles bits of the Cockettes’ musical lampoons, French sex farces, and Charles Ludlam’s Theater of the Ridiculous into what the program describes as a “Pulp Fiction Musical.”

You can’t help but admire the way the author slips from the “don’t stop at that farm even though there’s a sexy girl waving at you” routine to a full-scale musical revue with a chorus of demons ready to show our hero, Michael, the joys of hell and sinful living. Conceptually, the invention here is a delight, but it’s undermined by an insistent laziness.

(L to R) A farmer (James Jeske) takes possession of the innocent Michael (Earl Alfred Paus) in more ways than one in the Thrillpeddlers' 'Demon Train to Sodom' by Scrumbly Kodewyn.
(L to R) A farmer (James Jeske) takes possession of the innocent Michael (Earl Alfred Paus) in more ways than one in the Thrillpeddlers' 'Demon Train to Sodom' by Scrumbly Kodewyn. (Photo: David Allen)

In the play, Michael is sexually assaulted a number of times. Each assault is so poorly executed -- both in the writing and in the production -- that the whole enterprise starts to feel ethically suspect. The perfunctory nature of the blocking, the way Michael's shorts are lazily pulled down to reveal his bare ass, is a problem. It's not that it happens. It's that it doesn't seem to matter to the writer, the director, the actors, or the company. It's just one more random event among many.

We know that there are no limits to art or entertainment. Yet still debasement (Thrillpeddlers' metier) is only as interesting as the care with which it’s depicted. It reminds me of Black Francis of the Pixies screaming that he wants to grow "up to be / be a debaser.” But in the fractured logic of the song, Francis comes to that conclusion only after seeing a work of incredible art, Un Chien Andalouthat is almost perfect in its execution -- as opposed to the multiple assaults in Demon Train to Sodom, which along with a great deal more in the production are sloughed off with a cavalier amateurishness.

And that leaves us with Rob Keefe’s Pyramid of Freaks, a symptom of -- and possible antidote to -- what feels like an addiction to pure sensation on the part of the 'peddlers. Director Noah Haydon gives the production a loose-leafed rhythm that underplays the jokes and allows Keefe’s tale of a circus strongman who murders roustabouts and eats their hearts to find its own sense, no matter how odd and degraded the action on stage might be.

The play has a sharp sense of the everyday. Freaks, roustabouts, and management go about their business, play cards, bicker, and gripe about work. Even the murderous Tozzini, an excellent David Bicha, has a difficult home life with his wife and their two half-dog, half-human children. The detective who's after him is like everyone else, just trying to do his job.

(L to R) Madame Banga (Zelda Koznofski) and Tozzini (David Bicha) share some time with their dog children (Alix Feinsod and Earl Alfred Paus) in the Thrillpeddlers' production of 'Pyramid of Freaks' by Rob Keefe.
(L to R) Madame Banga (Zelda Koznofski) and Tozzini (David Bicha) share some time with their dog children (Alix Feinsod and Earl Alfred Paus) in the Thrillpeddlers' production of 'Pyramid of Freaks' by Rob Keefe. (Photo: David Allen)

Unfortunately, Keefe loses grip of the ordinary, or seems to lose patience with the joys of a nightmare that slowly unfolds. Instead, he speeds his way to the end and gives the audience the blood bath they've come for. So I guess it's true that haste makes waste. It’s not the blood and violence that fails, of which there is plenty. It’s the rush to get to it against any kind of sense, dramatic rhythm, or care. You feel that Keefe loses interest in his own talent and is just happy to disgust us, where with greater care he could have made that disgust brilliant.

So we're in a tiny theater South of Market and here's a small company that's thriving amidst the chaos of the voracious San Francisco scene. And yet its success, which is admirable, seems less a case of survival and more one of parasitic adaption, as neither the company nor city seems especially interested in human beings, or how the world has suddenly become so astounding and ugly at the same time. Art should care about completing itself, as a city should care about more than its glossy exteriors. The life we live and depict should aways exceed its shiny, bloody end.

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'Shocktoberfest 17: Pyramid of Freaks' runs through Monday, Oct. 31, at The Hypnodrome in San Francisco. Tickets and information here.

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