Theater review

Theater review: 'Blood Sweat & Fears III: The Red Velvet Curtain'

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By Celia Wren
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Thank goodness for the concept of artistic pedigree. Without it, "Blood Sweat & Fears III: The Red Velvet Curtain," the latest offering from Molotov Theatre Group, would just be an evening of cheerfully sophomoric skits depicting -- or vividly alluding to -- murder, stalking, masturbation, necrophilia, torture, rough sex play and the stewing of kittens.

Invoke the notion of pedigree, however, and Molotov is home free. This unconventional local troupe traces its aesthetic back to Paris's Théâtre du Grand-Guignol, an entertainment hub that, starting in the late 19th century, specialized in blood-spattering horror dramas, as well as other titillating fare. According to its mission statement, Molotov aims to "preserve and draw attention to" this outmoded genre: The three-year-old D.C. company is a sort of National Trust for the Historic Preservation of Slasher Plays.

The claim to ancestry gives a veneer of interest to the silly sensationalism in "Blood Sweat & Fears III," a 75-minute production jolting along at 1409 Playbill Café. Freely adapting and updating scripts once staged at London's Grand Guignol, an institution modeled on the Paris venue, writer Shawn Northrip has knit three playlets and four mimed interludes into a production that is heavier on sex than gore. Kevin Finkelstein (who staged Molotov's "The Horrors of Online Dating" at the 2010 Capital Fringe Festival) and Lucas Maloney direct the pieces, which feature adequate acting from a good-humored, role-juggling cast equipped with props and costumes that look as if they might have come from your great-aunt's attic.

First to appear onstage, in front of the eponymous crimson drapery, is Nate Newton as Hieronymus the Host, a largely mute M.C. who's dressed like an organ-grinder's monkey, with red sequined suspenders and a too-small red sequined top hat. In addition to playing wheezy music (composed by Northrip) on a portable harmonium during the interludes, this leering character sometimes mimes masturbation, at one point seeming to ejaculate a semenlike fluid mostly into a handkerchief but also into the audience area. (Reassuringly, the substance smelled like liquid soap.)

Bawdiness also dominates the buffoonish first skit, "Private Room Number 6," about a lewd general (Alex Zavistovich) whose rendezvous with a sweet young thing (a vivacious Donnis Collins) takes a grisly turn. (Finkelstein staged this piece; Maloney directed everything else, as well as supplying the often scarlet lighting.) References to Congressional hearings, to "Dawson's Creek" and "SpongeBob SquarePants," and to America's post-Sept. 11, 2001, military engagements give a token air of modernity to the piece, which features a nicely deadpan Chris Zito in the role of a hotelier.

A military theme also figures in the more suspenseful and gruesome playlet "The Person Unknown," featuring Anna Brungardt as a country music star whose opportunistic patriotism comes back to haunt her. (Theatergoers who might take offense at war-on-terror allusions exploited for shock value should stay away from "Blood Sweat & Fears III.") Brungardt portrays a dowdy housewife and Collins vamps as a sex-kitten neighbor in the evening's most tedious segment, "I Want to Go Home," an erotic comedy whose script resembles a losing entry in a frat house talent show.

In its better moments, "Blood Sweat & Fears III" can feel a little like a cozy, creaking tour bus slumming its way through theater history. Be sure to think "pedigree" and put your quality standards on hold before climbing aboard.

"Blood Sweat & Fears III: The Red Velvet Curtain"

Written and composed by Shawn Northrip; directed by Kevin Finkelstein ("Private Room Number 6") and Lucas Maloney (other material); scenic design, Finkelstein, Maloney and Erin Goldstein; costumes, Heather Whitpan; sound, Ben Russo; goremeister, Alex Zavistovich. With James T. Majewski. About 75 minutes. Through Nov. 13 at 1409 Playbill Café, 1409 14th St. NW. http://www.molotovtheatre.com.


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