Puppets are creepy. Don’t believe me? Like tricks, do you think they’re for kids only? One performance of Madhouse Variations, the new play from Toronto-based Eldritch Theatre, will change your deranged minds forever.
Written by founding member Eric Woolfe, Madhouse Variations tells the tale of a doctor at the Ravenscrag Asylum for the Mentally Deranged who discovers a book containing the stories of how three patients went insane. These stories, based on the works of H.P. Lovecraft, E.T.A. Hoffman and Algernon Blackwood, are told by Woolfe and fellow actor Kimwun Perehinec using some 30 puppets of various sizes and demented styles. The actors manipulate the puppets in full view of the audience, but soon enough we find ourselves paying attention to the mannequins being manipulated, not the actors.
Even non-theatre fans (hello!) will find themselves entranced by the presentation, and horror buffs will revel in the black humour, stylized gore and terrifying tales of Lovecraftian Old Ones, clockwork corpses and crazy killers.
Rue Morgue invited Eric Woolfe to explain himself by email.
Describe your background as a fan of horror.
I’ve been a horror geek all my life. As a little kid watching Sir Graves Ghastly and Superhost on Sunday afternoons, and staying up till 3 a.m. on Fridays as I got a little older watching Twilight Zone, Night Gallery and Tales From The Crypt in tandem. I was a teenager in the ‘80s, when the best thing to do on a Saturday was invite a pretty girl into the basement and pop in a grainy video tape of Basket Case or Prom Night 2 in the hopes that she would get freaked out enough to cuddle with me. Those sensibilities have stuck with me as I stagger into early middle age and questionable maturity.
How and why did the Madhouse Variations come about?
Eldritch Theatre has been producing these demented horror shows mixing actors and puppets for about ten years. The genesis for Madhouse came when I realized that I was stealing ideas from E.T.A. Hoffman and HP Lovecraft so much, I might as well plagiarize them outright and adapt two of their stories. So I picked my two favourites, Hoffmann’s “Sandman” and Lovecraft’s “Thing on the Doorstep.” I’d always wanted to pilfer Blackwood’s “Wendigo” story, but I couldn’t get it to fit with the other two, so I stole his “Smith: An Episode from a Lodging House” instead. The play is set in an asylum because I’ve always liked the idea of the suspect narrator, and having a play performed by inmates is such an unnerving idea for people it just seemed to be too good a thing to pass up. (That idea is stolen too, by the way: from the play Marat-Sade. I try to kidnap everything I can from smarter people and then claim it as my own. For what it’s worth, Marat-Sade is a deeply pretentious work. And Madhouse Variations is much more fun. So it’s better ‘cuz it’s not pretending to be Art. It’s aspiring to be really good trash.)
The works of H.P. Lovecraft figure heavily, as well as Algernon Blackwood and E.T.A. Hoffman. What is it about their work, and Lovecraft specifically, which inspires you?
Let me touch on Hoffmann first. He attempted to make his career as a composer. He was a contemporary of Mozart, more or less. He wrote these twisted fantasy stories to pay his hefty bar tabs when the music business was failing him. He’s largely remembered now only for bowdlerized adaptations of his stories; “The Nutcracker Suite” and “Coppélia,” for example. In point of fact, the originals are glimpses into these bizarre nightmare worlds where madness and rationality butt heads. A young woman falls in love with a magic prince who turns out to be a Potato Monster. A man goes mad after having his reflection stolen. Another runs away with a mysterious woman who turns out to be a magic snake. It’s all very crazy. And Hoffmann treats this madness as if it were matter of fact so he’s quite a delight to read.
The fun of Lovecraft for me is two-fold. His language is rich and dense and convoluted, and in the end, after he has morosely spewed forth a shadowy, foreboding, eldritch morass of grim and arcane adjectives, he’s actually told us very little, yet hinted very much. Lovecraft’s brilliance is that, at the end of the day, it’s all left up to our imaginations. He leads us down dark streets, describing the journey the entire way, and yet at the end of the trip, the street remains dark. Secondly, imagining that underneath our world is a sleeping infinity of demented, uncaring Elder Creatures that border on the Infinite is great, goofy fun.
There is a great deal of black humour in the play but also several truly creepy moments. How important was it for you to balance the humour with the dark, serious bits?
Well, basically I only have the attention span to write about things I really enjoy. And to me, the horror stories that are the most pleasurable are the ones that allow themselves to be pleasurable. Even Lovecraft wrote that all great horror is touched with irony. That doesn’t mean it’s spoof, or that it sends itself up. It means that it acknowledges that people read or watch horror stories as an act of enjoyment, like riding a roller coaster.
I’m much fonder of Re-Animator, than, say, Last House on the Left. Look at all the geniuses of horror: Romero, Karloff, Cushing, Lovecraft, Poe, Whale. They all understand that, in Karloff’s words, “It’s a big hoot.” It’s the failure to understand this that makes this current glut of Hollywood remakes so bloody dismal. They are no fun! (Hell! If you can’t even understand that Freddy Fucking Krueger is fun, why even bother to show up?!)
It’s hard for me to think in terms of “dark, serious bits” and “humorous bits” because, in my brains, it’s always both at the same time. I find it hard to tell them apart.
All of the stories are centred around the Necronomicon and the danger of secret knowledge. Describe your interest in the idea of the Necronomicon and knowledge which is best left unknown.
I needed a MacGuffin to bind the three stories together – which wasn’t the easiest task, frankly. And the Necronomicon is great for that because Lovecraft never really explains what it is. Not REALLY. Everything he writes about it is build up. It’s old. It’s dreaded. It’s damn-blasted. So, at the end of the day, you can make the Necronomicon be anything you want. You need to raise the dead? Fine. It’s a book that brings life to the dead. You need something to teach you how to switch bodies or summon demons? Fine, it can do that too. Also, it’s fun to say “The Dread Necronomicon of the Mad Arab Abdul Alhazred” over and over again.
You designed the production’s puppets. How essential are they to telling this story the way you wanted to tell it, as opposed to staging it with human actors?
One of the joys of working with puppets is that they are sort of like live action cartoons. They make it possible for a much wider range of style and subject matter than is available for strictly human performers.
A few years ago we did a play about Jack the Ripper. The female protagonist, Mary Kelly, keeps having these nightmares about Alice in Wonderland which attempt to warn her that she is in danger. So the show opens with Mary, played by a human actress, having a creepy conversation with a giant 15-foot tall caterpillar. Now, a caterpillar puppet can be many things: it can be scary, threatening, mysterious, funny, beautiful, lascivious, anarchic and mournful. Furthermore it can be these things in quick succession, and the audience goes along with it because it’s a big puppet. An actor in a caterpillar suit can only ever be one thing: stupid-looking.
The puppets are also what makes many of the horror elements so vibrant in our shows because ultimately it’s the audience members who bring the puppet to life. The actor just wiggles the thing and makes a voice for it, but it only comes to life in the imagination of the viewer. The viewer fills in the gaps and allows this creature to exist in their brain. And that’s all it takes – we’re inside your brain.
If we can make you believe that this jumble of wood and latex is really an old man, and he’s talking to people and moving around, then it’s much easier to make you believe that, say, there is a dangerous book of arcane knowledge that can raise the dead or help someone steal your soul. And, boo, we’ve creeped you out before you had a chance to stop us with rational scepticism. The puppets let us sneak in through the basement window when you’re not looking.
Thirdly, puppets themselves are scary. Much of horror film criticism is based on an essay by Sigmund Freud called “The Uncanny” which Freud wrote in observation of “The Sandman,” which we have adapted for Madhouse Variations. To boil the essay down, Freud posits that what scares us is viewing something that is simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar – a thing that seems “homey” and “foreign” all in the same breath. This is why people are often freaked out by puppets: they act like living things, and they look sort of like living things, but we know that they are not. They are inanimate objects. And therefore, puppets are creepy.
Puppet shows are normally for children. Why are your puppet shows not for kids, or what kind of kids do you think would appreciate them?
Puppet shows don’t need to be for kids any more than cartoons or comic books do. They are a tool for telling stories. Every time we do a show we have some mother or teacher stumble in with a gaggle of six-year olds in tow, acting indignantly that we try to gently warn them away. “My girl loves Barney! She’s not scared of puppets!” Inevitably we take their money, and they run away screaming. But… well, we warned them.
The Madhouse Variations is currently playing at Toronto’s The Theatre Centre (1087 Queen St. W.) until Nov. 7. Go to www.eldritchtheatre.ca for show times and ticket info. Go now!