Thrillpeddlers’ Kiss puckers up for some bloody good fun

L. Ron Hubby is a demon bride in Kiss of Blood, one of three horrifically terrific plays in the Thrillpeddler’s Shocktoberfest!! 2010. Below Daniel Bakken and Kara Emry in Lips of the Damned. Photos by

There’s nothing like the ooze of blood to usher in the holiday season. And by holiday season, I mean Halloween, which suddenly seems to be more reverently and feverishly celebrated than Thanksgiving.

While some theater companies rely on A Christmas Carol to boost their holiday box office, San Francisco’s Thrillpeddlers rely on blood, gore and cheap thrills. Who needs Scrooge when you have dismembered body parts?

Shocktoberfest!! the “annual pageant of terror and titillation,” has returned with three one-acts: one new, one old and one old newly updated. The plays are performed in the classic Grand Guignol style, which is to say anything goes on stage, and by anything, I mean in the blood and sex departments.

Dubbed Kiss of Blood, this year’s edition – the 11th – is silly, gory and a lot of fun. Watching these three one-acts offers the same kind of pleasures you might experience watching a trashy/terrific horror movie from the early 1970s. You have deliciously hammy performances bumping up against some outright terrible performances all submerged in just the right amount of gooey crimson stage blood.

My favorite of the trio is Kiss of Blood, a 1929 gem by Jean Aragny and Francis Nelson in an English translation by Daniel Zilber. The play opens with a botched brain surgery (the sound of the drill is enough to give you chills) and proceeds to follow a physician (Flynn DeMarco in a perfectly pulpy B-movie-style performance) as he deals with a crazed patient (Eric Tyson Wertz) and his dastardly digit. The guy’s finger hurts so much he’s contemplating suicide.

KISS4Of course there’s much more to the story, as we find in a nifty special-effects moment involving strobe lights and the ghostly figure of L. Ron Hubby. Scalpels and axes keep the action, how should we put it, lively.

The other two plays have their pleasures as well. Rob Keefe’s Lips of the Damned (suggested by La Veuve, an early Grand Guignol comedy) is very much like a French chapter of the Saw horror movie series with its punishing use of a life-size guillotine and a head cage designed to silence outspoken women (called a “scold’s bridle”).

In The Empress of Colma, Keefe has fun with 1970s drag queens as they squabble over a beauty queen title. I thought the Colma connection would somehow involve corpses or, at the very least, graveyards, but what we get instead is a juicy performance by Russell Blackwood, chief Thrillpeddler and director of all three plays, as Crystal, the reigning empress (complete with sash and crown – boy, does she put that crown to some interesting use). Wertz plays first-runner-up Patty Himst (get it? opposite of Patty Hearst) and Birdie-Bob Watt is Sunny, a ditzy blonde intent on using an iron to straighten her hair. Hmmmm. A sizzling hot iron amid ferociously fighting drag divas? That can’t turn out well.

Blackwood and his game cast are having a grand time, as usual, and they even throw in something of a Halloween carol between plays one and two. The happy horror holiday his here, and there’s no better way to celebrate than at the Hypnodrome drinking in the bloody delights of Shocktoberfest!!


Thrillpeddler’s Shocktoberfest!! 2010: Kiss of Blood continues through Nov. 19 at the Hypnodrome Theatre, 575 10th St., San Francisco. Tickets are $25 general ($35 for a “Shock Box” or a “Turkish Lounge”). Call 800 838-3006 or visit for information.

Kiss of Blood is at 8pm Thursdays and Fridays, and the oft-extended hit Pearls Over Shanghai is at 8pm Saturdays in October (more performances added in November and December). Read my review of Pearls here. Pearls is finally scheduled to close Dec. 19.

Glitter and be Shanghai gay!

Thrillpeddlers - Pearls Over Shanghai
Above: Kara Emry and William McMichael get Shanghaied in Pearls Over Shanghai.
Below: Eric Wertz and Steven Satyricon dream of “un bel di.”Photos by David Wilson

Mash up Beach Blanket Babylon with Miss Saigon, throw in every bad Oriental exotica movie ever made, season with Ziggy Stardust and The Rocky Horror Show then sprinkle liberally with Cockettes. The result will be Pearls Over Shanghai, San Francisco’s most unlikely hit musical. It’s so hip John Waters even came to see it.

Forty years after it premiered, Pearls was revived last June by director Russell Blackwood and his Thrillpeddlers theater company at The Hypnodrome, their funky SOMA headquarters. And the show is still going strong. Not even a busted water main and an ensuing flood could rain on this pearly parade.

Pearls Over Shanghai has been extended through April 24, making it practically a San Francisco institution this side of Rice-a-Roni and just as phony (in the best possible way). Dirty, salty, nasty, slinky, sweet and sour are mere glints of the jewel that is Pearl.

Directed by Blackwood and featuring a cast of more than 20, this extravaganza features a score by original Cockette composer Richard “Scrumbly” Koldewyn, who is still tickling the ivories (and the occasional funny bone) in a curly Ilsa She Nazi wig. The book and lyrics by Link Martin have more exotic flavors than an order of house chow fun and drag us into the underbelly of Shanghai circa 1937.

Thrillpeddlers _Pearls Over Shanghai

Three “Yankee Imperial tourists” wander down the wrong alley – imagine the Andrews Sisters falling into white slavery – and that’s the primary plot, though there is a fairly significant ode to Madame Butterfly with an American captain and his Shanghai peasant love. But who needs plot when you’ve got so much delightful decadence done up in so much glittery makeup and so many snazzily salacious costumes (by Kara Emry, Louise Jarmilowicz and Tahara)?

Blackwood is Mother Fu (Fu Manchu’s mother no less), sort of the opium den mother, and he presides over a stage full of familiar faces (Michael Phillis as the glitter-nippled Red Dragon, Veronica Klaus as Russian spy Petrushka, Kim Larsen as Madam Gin Sling) and some faces so garishly glittered they could be classically trained Kabuki actors. And in true San Francisco fashion, you see a whole lot more than just faces.

During intermission, audience volunteers are welcomed on stage, put on all fours and roundly spanked by Lottie Wu (Kara Emry), a dominatrix courtesan. And Act 2 of this two-hour camp delight gets down and dirty flirty with scanty costumes sometimes disappearing altogether. Call it Flower Bum Song. The second act also features some truly extraordinary black-light effects that take flight during an opium nightmare sequence.

With so much glittery carnality and Oriental kitsch filling the stage, just what does this Shanghai express? Sex, drugs and campy fun are the true San Francisco treat.


Pearls Over Shanghai continues an extended run through Aug. 1 at The Hypnodrome, 575 10th St., San Francisco. Shows are at 8pm Fridays and Saturdays and 7pm Sundays. Tickets are $30 (or $69 for the special “Shock Boxes”). Call 800 838-3006 or visit www.thrillpeddlerscom or

Notable dates:
– On Saturday, May 1, Pearls Over Shanghai celebrates its 100th performance.
– Saturday, June 5 marks Pearls’ one-year anniversary.

Coward’s `Better Half’

Now this, dear boy, is exciting.

A heretofore “lost” Noel Coward play is having its U.S premiere courtesy of San Francisco’s Thrillpeddlers, the group that specializes in Grand Guignol theater (bloody fun theater — think Sweeney Todd) at their theater space known as the Hypnodrome.

The one-act is called The Better Half, and according to a press release, it “skewers the sexual mores of the British upper crust.”

Apparently a pair of Welsh academics unearthed this nugget of a play, which Coward wrote in 1921 at age 22, before his superstar status had caught up with his superstar opinion of himself. “His caustic wit was already fully in evidence,” said University of Glamorgan professor Dr. Richard Hand, who discovered the original manuscript (with his colleague, Michael Wilson) deep in the files of the Lord Chamberlain at the British Library.

“Coward wrote it for London’s Grand Guignol Company,” Hand explained, “which was the British version of France’s notorious Théâtre du Grand Guignol, which specialized in scandalous comedies and terror plays. It was performed in May 1922, but never again. And it never has been published in any form.”

Dr. Hand will be in attendance at the Friday, March 21 opening-night show to discuss the discovery of the Coward play as well as his new book, London’s Grand Guignol and the Theatre of Horror.

Here’s Thrillpeddlers cofounder and artistic director Russell Blackwood: “It’s incredibly exciting, and due largely to our longstanding relationship with Richard Hand and Michael Wilson, that the Coward estate granted us the rights to stage the American premiere. And what’s even better is that the play is really good! According to Richard, the manuscript shows where the British censors struggled with cutting Coward’s more controversial innuendoes. But in the end it was so well written, and so funny, that they left it alone.”

The play is an unconventional comedy of manners depicting the sexual intrigues of an unhappily married couple, Alice and David, and the suggestion of David’s possible dalliance with Alice’s best friend, Marion. Alice Louise (Alice), Jonathan Ingbretson (David) and Alison Sacha Ross (Marion) portray the well-heeled but duplicitous troika.

The Thrillpeddlers are presenting the Coward play as part of Flaming Sin: London’s Grand Guignol. Also on the bill is The Old Women, or A Crime in a Madhouse, André de Lorde and Alfred Binet’s quintessential Grand Guignol shocker, which will comprise the “terror” portion of the evening. Set in a French insane asylum for women, the play was notorious for its unsettling mixture of suspense, gruesomeness, and farce. The latest version of this Thrillpeddlers staple is directed by Blackwood.

Please note: The Hypnodrome has also added two new “Turkish Corner” Shock Boxes, in which couples may bask in decadent languor while enjoying the show. Other Shock Boxes include “Heaven and Hell,” the “Pharaoh’s Tomb” and the “Padded Cell.” The theater’s popular private “Shock Box” seats offer the same opportunity for illicit trysting that was once a feature of the Parisian Théâtre du Grand Guignol-with added special effects as a nod to the 1950s horror movie gimmicks of William Castle.

Flaming Sin: London’s Grand Guignol is at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays through May 3, 2008 at the Hypnodrome, 575 10th St. (between Bryant and Division), San Francisco
Tickets are $20 (and, er, $69 for Shock Box seats for two). Call 800-838-3006 or visit for information. You might also want to check out and