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A twisted fable of mouse and man
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The use of puppets makes the fantastical elements of this tragic love story seem more believable
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By REBECCA CALDWELL

Grendelmaus

Written by Eric Woolfe

Directed by Michael Waller

Starring Eric Woolfe, Mary Francis Moore

At Toronto's Berkeley Street Theatre'

Rating: ***

While it may borrow from myths and fairy tales and uses a number of colourful puppets as characters, the delightfully twisted fable Grendelmaus has definite adult appeal.

Part gothic horror, part black comedy, it's a romantic tale of love and lust between Ishmael (Eric Woolfe), a craven, washed-up grad student and his high-school dream girl Rachel (Mary Francis Moore), a retired circus acrobat. The two are reunited by their dull office jobs, but torn apart by a villain that happens to be a mouse.

Not just any mouse, but a mouse instilled with supernatural powers after nibbling on the body of the monster Grendel -- the same one slain by Beowulf in the epic poem anchoring many an English Lit major's university studies.

After centuries spreading evil the way other mice spread plague, the Grendelmaus takes refuge in Ishmael's apartment. The crafty rodent also falls for Rachel, and the battle between man and mouse quickly escalates to one of heroic proportions.

The bizarre, elaborate premise of this Eldritch Theatre production comes from the brain of star Woolfe (Sideshow of the Damned). The sly language in Grendelmaus is as significant as the Old English of Beowulf itself. Buoyed by sardonic humour, Woolfe's script contains a highly crafted dialogue in Ishmael's academic argot and Rachel's circus lingo ("he's a nice jack," "it got finked"), which Moore delivers like a waterfall of poetry. Add some circa-1940 office equipment and swell costumes by Joanne Dente, and Grendelmaus has the smarts of cool comix and a moody, Palookaville atmosphere.

The play also uses Woolfe's puppets, operated by the two actors, to round out the cast. The mix between live action and hand and rod puppetry flows beautifully under Michael Waller's direction.

Ironically, using puppets as secondary characters makes the fantastical elements of the story seem more believable. Highly fanciful, the puppets range from crude (the sock puppet Grendelmaus, the hardware-store owner implied by a round ball) to astounding (Ishmael's nemesis, or the demon under Ishmael's command).

Woolfe's recent turn as Timon in The Lion King served him well: His skill with his creatures, particularly his suave but curiously rodent-like rival for Rachel's love, is wonderful to watch. Every head tilt, every arm gesture is imbued with purpose.

Moore's manipulations aren't quite as successful, particularly the scenes with Rachel's mother where she has to provide the voice and interact with her at the same time. Her work with the masks is more effective.

Occasionally some of the puppet work gets a little confusing when the stage is crowded with too many characters -- the climactic confrontation between Rachel, her mother, Ishmael and the villain is a little too cluttered. The actual chaos interferes with the theatrical chaos.

The human-operated puppets emphasize the irony of the small quiet tragedy of Ishmael who never mustered the courage to follow his dream and run away to sea. Even the puppets seem to have more free will and personality than the timid clerk. While watching Woolfe shriek at the sight of the puppet on his own hand is fundamentally silly, the battle between man and mouse underscores the feeling of being trapped by our own limitations.

At times, however, it feels as though the intentionally stylized production only lets the actors flirt with realism, keeping the depth of their characters on par with the puppets. Moore's flat, laconic delivery exudes ultra-hip charm but not too much warmth. The love story developing between the two is more coy than sweet, and her grief at Ishmael's inability to commit is more pragmatic than emotional. Ishmael's nebbish pratfalls with the Grendelmaus are a little too cartoonish, although his later struggle to overcome his own fears is subtly effective.

Still, Grendelmaus is an intelligent and highly satisfying piece of fantasy.
Grendelmaus continues at Toronto's Berkeley Street Theatre Upstairs to June 22. For information call 416-368-3110.