To be successful, a scary story has two requirements. It must have a buildup, in which we in the audience can see the horrible end hurtling toward the characters, even though the characters cannot. And it must have a payoff, a resolution which leaves us weak with surprise or laughter. Though the doom seems certain the story must be in doubt until the very end; there is no suspense to an execution.
Molotov Theatre Group, an organization dedicated to preserving the aesthetic of Grand Guignol, the French theatre of horror, stages, in less than ninety minutes, three short plays written in that tradition. Unfortunately, one of them lacks a buildup and another lacks a payoff.
The first play is Jack!, which is a story about, well, Jack (Alex Zavistovich), who is a very bad fellow indeed. The story begins with Violette, a working girl (Jenny Donovan) and her Madam (Misia Certe) reading a newspaper article about a brutal murder. Shortly thereafter their first customer arrives – a man looking precisely like the suspected murderer. Subtlety, clearly, is not an important element of this genre. The remainder of the play is basically Violette cowering with fear until justice is done.
The final play, Is the Coffee Still Warm?, suffers from the opposite problem. The payoff is satisfactorily violent and startling (and accompanied by very cool makeup) but we are not set up for it, and so the thrill is momentary. In this story, a wealthy blind woman (Certe) discovers that her maid (Donovan) has been getting it on with her husband, and gives her hell. The maid begs her mistress to give the husband a divorce (though the woman is the maid’s mistress, the maid is the husband’s mistress, not to make things too complicated). They go back and forth for a while, until the wealthy blind woman does a very bad thing – which is not related to her blindness, or to her wealth, or even (except as motivation) to the adultery. The effect is as if a talking head, in the midst of a disquisition on the public option, were to suddenly moon the audience – spectacular for a second, but ultimately unsatisfying.
I liked Thank You, in which Jacob (Kevin Finklestein) appears to be a lunatic who has kidnapped a bewildered Dollar Store manager (Zavistovich) in an act of homage. There is, of course, more to the story but I will tell you nothing about it except that Molotov manages it nicely, and the payoff is both startling and funny. Zavistovich, who has made his theatrical career playing villains, is convincing as the apparent victim and Finklestein, in his best moments, recalls Jason Lott.
These humble playlets offer their own special production challenges, and it appears as though director Lucas Maloney is still working through them. Jack! sabotages itself in several different ways, the most important of which is that the story is clearly set in France, but the characters freely use British slang while speaking (except for Certe, who apparently is, in fact, French) with American accents. Moreover, the play is full of inexplicable moments, such as when Violette, having already begun to suspect Jack, hands him a dangerous knife; or when she stays in the room while Jack sleeps, or when the Madam insists that she stay with Jack while the police are summoned. In short, you cannot believe this story, and if you cannot believe it you cannot be scared by it.
The other stories also have difficulties. In Thank You, Jacob has a costume change of significant duration, during which Zavistovich’s character has nothing to do but stare out at the audience. Elements of the sound design (Ben Russo) in Coffee, meant to suggest a crackling fire, suggest instead that the house is ablaze. Certe is utterly unconvincing as a blind person (and if that’s supposed to be the point, it is not made apparent). The musical background sometimes drowns out the speakers. Of course, the most important production element in shows of this nature is effective disgusting makeup, and in this Molotov excels. (Zavistovich and Jessica Knoerl are credited as “Goremeisters”.)
Part of Molotov’s problem is that unlike the Parisians of the 1890s, modern urban Americans are pretty much inured to things that go bump in the night. This is not, as might be imagined, because we see so much horror on TV but because we experience so little of it in life. We are swaddled by good medicine, good police work, and – even in bad economic times – more wealth than our ancestors would ever have believed. And thus we tend to scoff at terror tales, which is one of the reasons that so many modern ones are done with tongue firmly in cheek. Molotov’s tongue is in cheek, but not firmly; they really do try to give horror its due, but are quick to retreat to laughter when it doesn’t work.
By way of evidence, these shows are all mediated by Katie Molinaro in an excellent dominatrix outfit. Molinaro serves the function that Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, used to serve in the late-night horror shows: to snicker at the text. She kicks off the festivities by slitting Donovan’s throat and closes them by carving up Finklestein’s derrière. Regrettably, she is unable to do similar work on the scripts.
Blood, Sweat & Fears II: Guilty Pleasures
Translated and adapted by Richard Hand from Lui! by Oscar Metenier
By Carro Marren and Jon Lane
Is the Coffee Still Warm?
Freely adapted by Tara Garwood from Coals of Fire by Frederick Witney
Directed by Lucas Maloney
Produced by Molotov Theatre Group
Reviewed by Tim Treanor