A Molotov Show without Blood? Behind the Grand Guignol Scenes of ‘Normal’ by Alex Zavistovich

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Some audience members who come to see Molotov Theatre Group’s new production Normal from March 6-30, 2013 may be surprised to hear that not an ounce of blood is actually spilled on stage. It’s true – but that doesn’t mean Normal is not part of the true Grand Guignol tradition that Molotov embraces.

Normal details the history of Peter Kurten, the “Dusseldorf Ripper” who terrorized Germany from 1913 through the 1920s. It was the first work by Anthony Neilson, long regarded the father of the “In Yer Face” movement of British playwrights in the 1990s. The story of Normal is recounted largely through the eyes of Justus Wehner, the attorney appointed to represent Kurten in his trial after the capture that ended his horrific crime spree. The cast includes the excellent local actors Brian McDermott and Elizabeth Darby, along with me.

Alex Zavistovich.

Alex Zavistovich.

For those not in the know, the Grand Guignol was a French school of sensational and horrific theatre that was popular from the late 1890s to the early 1960s. By the 1930s its acting principles were even being adopted by early filmmakers – including some notable overlaps with German Expressionism. The entire suspense and horror genre popular today owes a lot to the producers of that theatrical style.

It’s important to remember that the Grand Guignol wasn’t only about drawing blood. There are several important aspects to the theatrical style that are essential to a true Grand Guignol show, and “Normal” has that in spades:

Distortion of Time: Have you ever been in an accident, and suddenly everything seems to slip into slow motion – but it’s still too fast to do anything about it? That distortion of time is critical to Grand Guignol, and Normal is riddled with it. From dream sequences to extended stylized scenes set to an unsettling original musical score (from the innovative composer Gregg Martin), Normal plays with the idea of time to keep the audience unsure about what is real and what is imagined.

Fourth Wall Ambiguity: The Grand Guignol style is intended to give audiences the voyeuristic feeling that they are actually part of the action, not just watching. Under the expert direction of Jay D. Brock of Catholic University, Normal plays with that voyeuristic notion. The audience is made to be drawn into what’s happening on stage, and the relatively small space of the DC Arts Center makes that feeling even more intense.

Elizabeth Darby.

Elizabeth Darby.

The Moment of Horror: Usually just before or actually during an act of violence, the moment of horror is a character’s realization that the inevitable is actually about to occur. Not a truly declamatory technique, the moment of horror is still typically conveyed by gesture or facial expression–particularly in combination with a sudden break with the fourth wall.

The Hot and Cold Shower: A typical evening at the original Grand Guignol would feature three one act plays in a particular order: suspense, farce, and horror. The idea of putting a comedy between two dark plays was to create a “palate cleanser” for the audience, to keep the audience off-balance, and to make the horrific one-act show closer even more intense from the viewer’s perspective.

In Normal, the visual onslaught of dark subject matter is punctuated by one particular scene of nearly vaudevillian farce. The audience – and the central character of the play – are both transported from the reality of the moment, and then snapped back in, to keep himself and the audience continually struggling to hold onto what is actually real, and what is merely a dream.

 Brian McDermott.

Brian McDermott.

Whew. That’s a lot of lofty philosophical chatter about what’s ultimately supposed to be an evening of weird entertainment from the twisted minds of Molotov Theatre Group. But knowing a little more about the traditions of the original Grand Guignol, and how those practices are being worked into Normal, should prove to people who see the show that you don’t need buckets of blood to be strange and disturbing. (I mean it never hurts, but…)

Normal plays Thursdays through Sundays at 7:30 PM from March 6-30, 2013, at the DC Arts Center – 2438 18th Street, NW, in Adams Morgan, in Washington, DC. Every Thursday is Pay-What-You-Can. Tickets can be purchased online.

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Alex Zavistovich is co-founder and president of the board of Molotov Theatre Group, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization dedicated to education and the preservation of the Grand Guignol French Theatre of Horror.

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