I have an affinity for the grotesque and uncanny. I crave that telltale tingle up my spine. To satisfy this taste for the macabre, Eldritch Theatre presents their ghastly yet whimsical double bill: Two Weird Tales! A true vaudevillian, creator/performer Eric Woolfe blends puppetry, magic tricks and live video projections in his retelling of two classic texts: Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” and H.P. Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness.”
In “The Metamorphosis,” Gregor Samsa awakes one morning to find that he has inexplicably transformed into a large insect. His sister and parents must contend with this creature they no longer consider a part of the family. This is a dismal tale that sees poor Gregor physically and psychologically fraught.
Woolfe’s handling of the puppets is deliberately cumbersome, a comical play on the nasty, physical awkwardness of Gregor’s predicament. Designer Lindsay Anne Black’s characters and set have a skewed, angular intensity that is pure German expressionism. Sometimes the disproportionate size of a character’s head is, in itself, hilarious.
As revolting as his state is meant to be, the Gregor puppet’s buggy little eyes are vulnerable and endearing, always reminding us of the tortured, very human consciousness at the heart of the story.
Shabbily dressed in tattered housecoat and mysteriously sick, Woolfe serves as narrator. His magic here is fixated on red objects—some soft and squishy, some metallic—which appear from his body. He coughs them up, wrenches them from ears and armpits. His delivery is punctuated with all manner of hacking, convulsive upsets that seem linked to Gregor’s malaise.
This segment concludes on a charming bit of levitation trickery that I interpreted as Gregor’s freed soul. This suggestion of transcendence is both fanciful and moving.
Last week, in preparation for the performance, I read Kafka’s novella for the first time. It struck a deep chord. Woolfe and team honour that essential, awful sadness and anguish while maintaining a buoyant, goofy tone.
Having tackled a few short stories, I am not a fan of H.P. Lovecraft. I recognize his influence on the science fiction and horror genres, but I find his actual writing banal, overwrought and humourless. By embracing the inherent silliness, this rendition of “At the Mountains of Madness”—for me, at least—fixes Lovecraft.
His particular brand of cosmic horror is conveyed quite accurately, but Woolfe and team treat the story with a campy, melodramatic flair that is far more compelling that Lovecraft’s tiresome self-seriousness.
Woolfe portrays geologist Dr. William Dyer, one of only two survivors of a doomed expedition into Antarctica. Lecturing to us as scientific peers, he tries to dissuade us from a secondary expedition by detailing the horrific events of the first.
Having found the remains of an ancient civilization of massive, monstrous creatures, they meddle with the remnants and so wake the “Elder Things” that threaten humanity.
Designer Melanie McNeill provides a cool, eerie aesthetic of arctic environments, misshapen creatures and peculiar artifacts. The twisted, exposed viscera of half-alive people and ancient, ghastly lifeforms are deliciously cartoonish; yet it is this silliness and artificiality that makes them so striking. Particularly clever is some background lore presented in a Dr. Seuss style.
Here again, stage magic is an interactive, dynamic aspect to the storytelling. Cute performative embellishments can feel gimmicky, but Woolfe and director Mairi Babb weave them delicately into the immersive structure of the production.
Two Weird Tales! has that anarchic, crude feel that characterizes impromptu, DIY theatre. It’s inventive and spontaneous yet also rich, textured and purposeful. In other words: it’s well crafted, freakishly so.