Absinthe, Opium & Magic: 1920s Shanghai, produced by Grand Guignolers & [via] Corpora; Opens Nov. 28; plays Fri.-Sat. with selected Wed., Thurs. & Sun. performances with 7:45 boarding, 8 pm on board entertainment, 8:30 showtime; through Jan. 3. Tickets: $20-$30. Art/Works Theatre, 6569 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood; 800.838.3006 or brownpapertickets.com. For further information, go to grandguignolers.com
All aboard on Grand Guignolers luxury cruise! The destination? 1920s Shanghai. A time where Westerners made Shanghai the place to have, ahem, a bit of fun. Booze, drugs, prostitution – all essential ingredients for having a good time. All of which, and more, are in Absinthe, Opium & Magic: 1920s Shanghai, created and directed by Debbie McMahon.
It is more than a show; it’s an entire experience the moment you step into the building. “The idea is that the audience is coming in on a luxury cruise in 1920s Shanghai,” says McMahon. “When you enter the theatre lobby, you’re entering the outside of the ship; when you enter the theatre, you’re entering the ship.” There is even on-board entertainment before the show begins. There is an old photo booth, a Chinese tea station and even an Absinthe demo where guests can partake of the infamous elixir. There will also be Charleston and Tango dancing.
Then a live travelogue will commence to give the audience an idea of what to expect in Shanghai. Finally guests will be taken to Shanghai where the stories unfold. This production consists of three original shows: Sing Song Girl Sings Last Song, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and The Cabinet of Hands by Chris Bell.
Grand Guignolers in French means big puppets. “We play with the idea the actors are big puppets. Through magic,” explains McMahon, “I play the sorcerer’s apprentice who was made from a little puppet. That becomes a weave throughline to tie the pieces together.”
The faux-French company is known for its elaborate, highly-stylized and engaging theatricality. “It’s not a long show,” she adds. “The idea is to pack a lot of variety and imagery in a short amount of time to keep it from being boring. My goal in creating theatre is for it to not be boring. There’s something for everyone,” she attests.
There is also the Petits Guignolers, a French finger puppet troupe. “They ask a lot of existential questions like what does it mean to be a puppet? It’s completely absurd and usually the hit of our show,” laughs McMahon. “We have a new addition for the dummy; he has a dummy-which is the evil version of the dummy.” Yes, you read correctly; the dummy has an evil dummy. “The dummy also brings up questions of free will. There’s a contrast of the fun, silly quality of the ship’s entertainment with the dark more sinister side of Shanghai with magic underlying it.”
McMahon started Grand Guignolers a few years ago after attending a Grand Guignol workshop. “It has a sense of melodrama to it,” she says. “And melodrama, when done well, is really provocative, visceral and exciting.”
With the basics of the style, she’s mixed into the equation an immersive performance aspect – where everybody is a part of the world. “So we fictionalized the troupe itself,” tells McMahon. “Everything about the piece is fictionalized.” Thereby creating a unique theatrical experience.
“The quality the [original] Grand Guignol had been the fact upper middle class people were going into a seedy part of town to see something titillating or naughty.” She admits, “It’s that quality I like to exploit and use – to show theatre can be something fun and we’re all a part of it. There’s a combination of elegance and crudeness about it. It’s tapping into guilty pleasure. And doing it in a way that’s artistically well crafted and fun.
“That’s the spirit of the company. It has a bite.”
The company employs the genres of Commedia Dell’arte, Melodrama, Vaudeville, Puppetry, old time magic and clowning. “It’s taking all that stuff and doing something new with it. Mixing them all up and creating my own style,” she reveals. “It’s very presentational.”
For her, it’s about “finding physical, emotional impulses and expressing them fully through the body. It’s really about telling stories; that’s the bottom line.”
Researching Shanghai during the 1920s, McMahon was intrigued by the amount of corruption. “There was more prostitution in Shanghai at this time than anywhere else in the world,” she says astonished. “The British came in and brought opium. And it becomes a super multi-cultural city.” She adds, “When opium became illegal, it became similar to how prohibition was here. Gangsters started to emerge and rule the city.” In fact, one of the main gangsters in the show, Big Ears, is a combination of two of the biggest gangsters in Shanghai during the 1920s.
“It’s a dark piece but it’s pretty colorful.”
The Grand Guignolers are doing a big production on a tiny scale. “We have a limited space. We can’t create a big fancy set. We have to create it with the actors and the movement. We have to be more creative with it,” admits McMahon.
“I like to rethink everything that’s a given to doing theatre,” she declares.
“We’re going to work hard and sweat and bleed on stage for the people. If they’re going to spend money and dress up we want to give them more than what they expect.” She adds, “It’s really about creating an immersive experience. My focus is on our guests from the minute they walk in the door to the end.”
McMahon is completely taken by Shanghai in the 1920s. “There’s more wildness and extravagance than in any other city in the world at the time. The parties and the clubs, the opium, drinking and gambling – it’s completely over the top.” And then “on the flip side is the poor working in terrible conditions.” She adds, “It’s this world of excessive greed…and fun. But what’s the price of that? Is staining the soul the price of living this excessive life?”
Be prepared to have the senses inundated (in the best possible way). “There’s a naughty, trickster quality underlying the experience. But we invite the audience to be part of it. That’s why we encourage people to dress up.” So ladies, don your flappers; gents, put on your three-piece suits and fedoras – and hop on board to 1920s Shanghai.
Photos by Mark Bennington
Article by Ashley Steed