grendelmaus by Eric Woolfe, directed by Michael Waller, with Woolfe and Mary Francis Moore. Presented by Eldritch Theatre at the Berkeley Street Theatre Upstairs (26 Berkeley). Runs to June 22, Monday-Saturday 8 pm, matinee Saturday 2 pm. $15, Monday pwyc. 416-368-3110. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
Eric Woolfe gets full marks for imagination. In Grendelmaus, the actor/playwright strings together puppets, an Old English epic and the dual conventions of horror and romantic comedy to tell the story of a meek file clerk (Woolfe), a former circus performer (Mary Francis Moore) and the evil little mouse that comes between them.On paper, it sounds unplayable, but Michael Waller's production makes it twitch with life, even if a few details squeak by the artists' attention.
The puppets, designed by Woolfe, are hugely theatrical. They range from a tiny hand-puppet for the malevolent title character (who, in a hilarious series of Punch and Judy episodes, we learn preyed on Beowulf's Grendel to become relentlessly evil) to a 12-foot monster, with lots of cute and cantankerous critters in between.
Surrounding the two humans with puppets underlines Woolfe's theme of paranoia and dehumanization. And there's added psychological depth when the humans give voice to the puppets. When Moore's single woman, Rachel (human), converses with her annoying mother (puppet), and the actor plays both characters, her bickering sounds like she's talking to herself. Is this a nightmare happening in her mind? Are all nightmares, in fact, self-induced?
What doesn't work as well is the mix of languages and dialects. Woolfe's clerk, Ishmael (all the names hail from Moby Dick), speaks grad-school, while Moore's ex-trapeze artist speaks carny. Why? Wouldn't a more naturalistic language make the dehumanization around them more chilling?
The musical choices are also distracting, sounding at times like tracks from lush film scores.
Still, there are moments of brilliance in the script and production, and the two actors -- Moore as grounded and no-nonsense as ever, Woolfe a veritable YTV sampler of funny voices -- handle the incredible technical and emotional demands of the show with eye-popping ease.