Madhouse Variations

This Madhouse is a total scream

MADHOUSE VARIATIONS by Eric Woolfe, directed by Christine Brubaker, with Kimwun Perehinec and Woolfe (Eldritch Theatre). At the Theatre Centre (1087 Queen West). To November 7, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Saturday-Sunday 2 pm. $20-$25, Sunday pwyc. 416-538-0988. See listing. Rating: NNNN

Writer and puppeteer Eric Woolfe, a lover of horror stories, knows how to make viewers laugh while they feel a frisson of terror.

His latest, Madhouse Variations, features two residents of creepy Ravenscrag Asylum who relate a series of tales (drawn from Algernon Blackwood, E.T.A. Hoffmann and H.P. Lovecraft) that provide a history of the haunted asylum.

Playing all the characters – puppet manipulators, masked figures, zombie-like inmates – Woolfe and Kimwun Perehinec know just when to touch the funny bone and when to go for that scream-inducing surprise.

The narrative follows the attempts of the long-dead (or is he?) Ephraim Waite, who seeks the forbidden knowledge hidden in the Necronomicon, written by the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred. You might know the book from the writings of Lovecraft, whose stories create terror by leaving much to the imagination, or from Evil Dead (film or musical), where it’s the source of lots of mayhem in the woods.

The three stories Woolfe draws on deal with possession, demons, mechanical dolls and sex, sometimes all mixed together in an always-clever staging that includes brains, entrails and various forms of dismemberment. Don’t look for fake blood, though the company uses more subtle means to achieve a gorefest.

Woolfe’s puppets, many with oversized body parts, are a treat. His creations include hand puppets, shadow puppets, figures of various sizes and a monster that appears without any obvious manipulator. You might recognize some of them – their names, at least – from previous Woolfe productions.

Under director Christine Brubaker, the two actors move briskly from one tale to another, using both levels of the Theatre Centre to great effect. They get clever support from sound designer Mike Filippov, set and costume designer Melanie McNeill – love the glasses she creates for the middle tale, which focuses on characters’ eyes – and Gareth Crew’s atmospheric, menacing lighting.

Each of the performers has a standout role. For Woolfe, it’s Nathan, the curious, mistreated boy who falls in love with the wrong woman for Perehinec, it’s the seductive, hard-edged Miss Smith, whose sexual desires take her into uncharted territory.

Halloween might be over, but if you’re in the mood for some spooky chills, catch Madhouse Variations for an entertaining evening of Grand Guignol and gleeful fun.

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