Monday, October 30, 2000

Ian Morfitt

Dark tribute almost drowns in excess

Written and directed by Gord Rand
Scorched Earth Society
Starring Bill Webster, Jeff Gruich, Ryan McVittie, Viv Moore, Marie-Josée Lefebvre
Canadia Dell'Arte Studio, Toronto on Saturday
Rating: **

It was a dark and stormy night. As the waves crashed against the lonely lighthouse, the wind howled and rattled the only window in the confines of the cold, damp chamber just beneath the beacon platform.

Thus begins the prelude to Scorched Earth Society's inaugural production of the 1956 Grand Guignol classic, Orgy in the Lighthouse.

During its 70-odd years of existence, Montmartre's Théātre du Grand Guignol not only became one of Paris's leading tourist attractions. It also gave its name to a genre of theatre. The Grand Guignol plays melded the philosophy of the then-dominant naturalism movement — which sought to precisely describe the circumstances of human life through the arts — with an appeal to a baser curiosity about the darker side of humanity. Murder, torture, rape and all other manner of depravity were enacted with lifelike realism. Grand Guignol's trademark was gory special effects complemented by a keen understanding of psychological horror.

Orgy opens with an absinthe-drenched lighthouse keeper, Logandee (Bill Webster), perched high up on his darkened beacon platform, rousing himself from a drunken slumber with a wondrous sonata of snorting, farting and gurgling noises as he comes as close to full consciousness as he will get. He wakes only to be chastised by fellow lighthouse keeper Leonard for his wicked, wasted life.

For his part, Leonard spends almost all of his time deep in prayer. But his routine is interrupted by the arrival of his long-lost brother, Marcel, who has returned from the Vietnam war accompanied by two prostitutes. Leonard denounces Marcel — and announces that their mother will arrive on the next ship. In the meantime, Marcel goes off with the older, clapped-out prostitute and leaves the younger girl to seduce Leonard — which leaves open the possibility that Leonard will not be ready to guide his mother's safe arrival.

As a man who spends his days in contemplation of the next life at the expense of this one, Leonard is less dramatically appealing than his brother. Although half mad and degenerate, Marcel at least lives his life with a passion. Yet to delve too deeply into the subtler aspects of a play like this would be to miss the point: Like all Grand Guignol plays, it is not presented for our edification, but to entertain us, by any means necessary.

And in many ways, it entertains us well. Designer Chad McMillan creates a realistic lighthouse living quarters, and every inch of the claustrophobic set is put to good use by director Gord Rand: His characters slip, slide, tumble and writhe around its confines.

For the most part, the actors acquit themselves nicely in difficult roles. Jeff Gruich as Leonard strikes the right note as a man wholeheartedly committed to leading a life of virtue — and one who comes alive only at the outrages perpetrated upon a statue of the Blessed Virgin. Ryan McVittie's portrayal of Marcel is masterly in its physical and psychological look at demented amorality. The battle-scarred soldier's prowess of movement and short, sharp outbursts of anger and passion are executed with a ferocity that rivets the audience.

A deft and subtle portrait of the worldly and world-weary prostitute Lisette is painted by Viv Moore. By contrast, Marie-Josée Lefebre as Bébé, the pubescent, doll-clutching prostitute awkwardly trying to seduce Leonard, is a little too self-assured in her sexuality, undermining the effect of an innocent seducing an innocent. But, like McVittie, she displays a fluid, compelling range of movement.

Rand's adaptation sometimes displays excesses of dialogue. Marcel's verbal outrages might have been shocking 50 years ago, but now seem a bit repetitive. He leaves us, however, with a stunning visual image in the best tradition of Grand Guignol. At Halloween, he delivers both the tricks and a very substantial treat.

Orgy runs until Nov. 4. For tickets, call (416) 969-3420.

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Created: November 9, 2000
Last modified: January 19, 2001
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