Is Grendelmaus just another boy-meets-girl, boy-lusts-after-girl, boy-loses-girl-to-rodent story? A cliché of the rags-to-rodent genre, this time with puppets of all kinds to add spice and glamour? Well, yes and no.
Grendelmaus is Eric Woolfe's marvelously insane rendering of what happens when a balding Ismael meets a crinolined Rachel and a little white mouse intervenes to thwart the love that dares to speak its name and act on its sexual urges.
Woolfe, recent alum of The Lion King, appears to have been inspired by a year's worth of puppet acting, and visual quotes from the Taymor vocabulary are reconsidered here with great results. The bulbous-headed landlady is bargain basement Scar, but all the better for a lack of engineering that is compensated for by Mary Francis Moore's propulsive arms. The final vision of Grendelmaus suggests the character that Woolfe played in the Disney opus, but again he steers far from replication and marks the image as his own by keeping it within the framework of his story.
There are moments, too, when the puppet manipulation and story merge so that the image of puppet and puppeteer working together heightens the effect, creating stage magic with the least amount of gimmickry at play. Rachel's mother is the best example of this device, a device that also echoes the work of Ronnie Burkett. And by including Burkett here, I don't mean to diminish the effort of Woolfe, Moore and their collaborators. In fact, Eldritch Theatre succeeds in paying due respect to their inspiration without riding anyone's coattails in the process.
The writer loves language and intellectual dexterity as much as he cherishes visual fol-de-rol, and he is generous with his acting partner by giving her plenty to spit out. If Woolfe, the writer, would consider editing the piece down by about fifteen minutes, eliminating the intermission in the process, he would sharpen the play's focus and its cumulative impact would be far greater. As it is, the writer occasionally gets in the way by forcing us to see and hear his clever thoughts. At its best, Grendelmaus succeeds when the clever thoughts creep up on us. Much like the title-bearing creature itself.