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LA Theater Review

Absinthe Opium and Magic: 1920s Shanghai

For pure gore-drenched fun, nothing beats Grand Guignol. Developed by Le Theatre de Grand Guignol (literally "big puppet") in Paris at the turn of the 20th century, the genre features stories of graphic violence in macabre settings, often told through music, dance, and mime. Now in its third season, the Grand Guignolers company brings a rollicking, authentic charm to this storied form.

Set in Shanghai in the Roaring '20s, the show consists of several vignettes, each a spooky violent tale with a heavy dose of moral ambiguity. The opening piece is set in a Shanghai brothel where a young woman is about to sacrifice her virginity to a local gangster boss but escapes with the help of her fellow prostitutes. The next piece is the Grand Guignol version of a "Punch and Judy" puppet show, replete with a cigarette-smoking, smooth-talking seducer and lots of double-entendres.

Perhaps the goriest vignette is "The Cabinet of Hands," written by Chris Bell, about a thrill-seeking couple who venture into an opium den, only to have the wife lose her hand to the perverse proprietor who collects the hands of her customers as "souvenirs." Finally, writer-director Debbie McMahon adapts "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" (loosely based on the Goethe story) into a madcap, hilarious frenzy featuring prancing goons and a jumbo rabbit.

McMahon does a terrific job of adapting the genre to modern sensibilities while remaining true to the essential character of Grand Guignol. As a performer, she also leads the troupe in its marvelously outsized expressions and physical gestures. Dance choreography by Jeanne Simpson is excellent, and set design by Bell is very good. The pre-show entertainment and an audience that dresses for a cruise make the evening even more entertaining.


Presented by Debbie McMahon and [via] Copora Performance Research and Development House at Art/Works Theatre, 6569 Santa Monica Blvd., L.A. Nov. 28–Jan. 3., 2009. Variable schedule.  (800) 838-3006. www.brownpapertickets.com.

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