A New Noel and the Grand Guignol!

What do Noel Coward, the quintessentially English satirist of upper crust British foibles (and author of theater classics like Private Lives) and a quintessentially French, gruesome, farcical 19th century theater of shocks and horror (as revived by the San Francisco Thrillpeddlers) have in common?

Eddie Muller. Yup, the Czar of Noir is back, out of the Castro Theater and in the Hypnodrome in San Francisco, demonstrating why he is not only an amazing cultural archaeologist, but a contemporary Renaissance Man.

A few weeks ago, Eddie gave me the preamble: The Better Half, a lost one act Noel Coward play had been recently discovered by University of Glamorgan scholar and historian Dr. Richard Hand, along with his colleague, Michael Wilson. Lurking in the files of Britain’s Lord Chamberlain (the official censor of British theater), the 1921 comedy had actually been written as the comedy portion of a Grand Guignol production in London. Eddie was directing the AMERICAN PREMIERE. Yup, folks, not Broadway, not Stratford, not even Off-Off, or Off-Off-Off, but the Hypnodrome in Noir City won the right to re-premiere this lost Noel nugget. The Better Half would be the first half of a night of Grand Guignol, followed by Christopher Holland’s The Old Women; or, A Crime in a Madhouse.

Give the Coward estate kudos: the chance to have the play performed within its original context won the Thrillpeddlers the bragging rights. And Eddie, who has specialized in premieres this year (as those who were lucky enough to see The Grand Inquisitor or The Prowler at a Noir City film festival can testify), took on the challenge.

And–of course–like everything Eddie touches, it came out gold. I was there last night, on the second preview of the show. The set design was nothing short of a miracle–this is a warehouse venue, after all, a tiny DIY theater. And yet the creative use of carved out flats suggested both a 1920s dadaist/deco impression of a well-bred London flat AND (in the second half) a decayed and forbidding (and ecclesiastical) French insane asylum. Programs weren’t printed yet, so I unfortunately can’t credit the phenomenal designer by name … but the design was nothing short of genius.

So, too, was Eddie’s use of it. He moved his cast of three actors around the tight, almost claustrophobic space and made it feel like one of those grand English drawing rooms in a 1930s screwball comedy. Cinematic flourishes and suggestive, flirtatious touches that underlined and perfectly punctuated the dry wit and fast-paced one-liners completely captured the Coward ambiance. The dialog coach Eddie brought in had done a remarkable job with the actors — and even Mr. Muller sounded like a young Ronald Colman.

Eddie’s terrific direction was enhanced by an amazing performance from an actress I hope we hear more from: Alice Louise. The Better Half is a three character comedy, with the figure of Alice, a frustrated wife, functioning as the centerpiece. Much of it flowed like a monologue, and without a truly gifted actress in this part, the play would’ve fallen flat. Alice Louise more than lived up to the tremendous challenges of the tiny venue and constricted stage: she seemed to channel Gertrude Lawrence in the sheer charm and virtuosity of her performance. I saw Judi Dench in Hayfever on the West End a couple of years ago; Alice Louise easily bested most of the actors in that production. She’s an actress to watch.

Some of you may be wondering what Grand Guignol is … the short version is that it was an actual theater in Paris’ Montmartre that specialized in the sensational, emphasis on senses. Lots of horror, and all of it front of you, not off-stage. Eye-gouging, torture scenes, all the stuff you’re now familiar with from Tales of the Crypt. It has exerted tremendous influence on entertainment of every stripe–from comic books to television to film and plays. Think Sweeney Todd or Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, and you’ll get the idea.

The original plays, however, often contained a large dose of social commentary, and the second half of last night’s double bill was no exception. Directed by Thrillpeddler’s charming and demonically genial host, Russell Blackwood, the production was an extremely well-executed and well-acted (the young actress who portrayed the victim was a real stand-out) tale mixing grotesque, explicit violence with farce and a sharp critique of the Catholic church. While my personal tastes run toward a slightly more restrained approach in both film and live production, the Grand Guignol is something to experience, and everyone should be grateful to the Thrillpeddlers for keeping it alive with such style and verve.

Grand Guignol, after all, can be traced back to classical Greece, where plays featured women who dismembered their sons and men who blinded themselves after incest with their mothers. And the addition of the comedy element can be considered a satyr play, that brief foray into sex and comedy that Athenian playwrights wrote for the end of a long day of tragic fare.

So even if you’re not particularly a fan of the Vault of Horror, troop down to the Hypnodrome on 10th street in San Francisco — for a twenty dollar seat, you’ll get a night of rich entertainment: a scintillating and brilliantly-directed new Noel Coward confection, and a stomach-churning, over-the-top George Romero-style French classic. How can you miss? By the way, a radio interview with Eddie and Dr. Hand will be broadcast on Tuesday on KALW, for those who want to hear more back story.

Next week: Return to noir, with Robert Mitchum and Faith Domergue in Where Danger Lives … or, as I call it, Never Date a Suicide