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Return of the Woolfe-man

Eric Woolfe brings old-fashioned thrills and chills to SummerWorks

SIDESHOW OF THE DAMNED

Featuring Ron Kennell, Hume Baugh, Melody A. Johnson, Darren Keay, Kimwun Perehinec. Written by Eric Woolfe. Directed by Michael Waller. Opens Aug. 4 at 9:30pm; runs to Aug. 12. Factory Studio Theatre ,125 Bathurst. $8 ($40 pass). 410-1048.

BY JOANNE HUFFA

A couple of years ago, actor/ playwright Eric Woolfe wrote and starred in The Strange and Eerie Memoir of Billy Wuthergloom, a one-person-plus-puppets SummerWorks show that looked into the psyche of a suburban boy and his relationship with an unusual friend.

This year, Woolfe presents the macabre comedy Sideshow of the Damned. This one does not include puppets -- though Ron Kennell appears as a creepy, skeletal sideshow barker -- but it has enough severed limbs, insect excretions and blood-lusting monsters to satisfy any horror fan.

However, Woolfe makes specific instructions in the Sideshow script that "real" blood and hi-tech effects should not be used in this spooky trilogy of terror featuring such characters as a wolfman, a vampire, a demented scientist and a thirsty, limb-tearing shark. In the script, he requests that "the horrors and bloodshed to follow should always be played stylistically, using half masks, red ribbons and imaginative solutions instead of the more costly latex, prosthetic and liquidy tricks utilized by the film trade."

"Part of that concerns budget and the concern of making a mess," Woolfe laughs during a pre-SummerWorks conversation. "Film has hijacked the horror genre away from the theatre world. When we think of horror, we think of photographic realism and effects. When we think of things that are scary, we think of them jumping in at you from out-of-frame.

"We've forgotten the vocabulary to do that in a proscenium setting. One of the advantages of having neo-Brechtian blood and gore is that we're approaching ways to stage violent and supernatural acts with the mechanisms showing and using more of the imagination. I think the result is still scary."

Sideshow is a series of scary stories connected by Kennell's Barker character. In true circus-sideshow style, it offers thrills and chills for even the most jaded audience. As the Barker, the excellent character actor Kennell (most recently seen in Ines de Castro) lures viewers into a world where a beautiful woman (Kimwun Perehinec) drinks a disgusting potion -- you'll have to see the play to find out just what is in the glass -- and finds herself transformed into a cockroach. Although comedic, this isn't a story for the faint of heart.

Woolfe's love of the spooky can be traced back to his childhood, when he grew to appreciate the various sub-genres of scary movies during late-night viewings. Much later, the enjoyment of spooky entertainment diversified into comics, particularly EC Comics. These were the American genre titles of the late '40s to mid-'50s that eventually transformed into the classic satirical monthly MAD Magazine.

"When I was a kid, horror was the thing my dad and I really bonded over," he explains. "We both really liked horror films. So, when I was a teenager and I'd get home at 2 in the morning from wherever I'd been, he'd have a stack of things that he'd rented. He'd say, 'Hey! Let's sit down and watch Demons' or some Italian horror film. We'd stay up till 4am watching everything from old Boris Karloff to Dario Argento."

"I got into EC Comics about two years ago," Woolfe continues. "It surprised me how shockingly modern in their sensibilities they seemed. And that leads to the whole censorship fight too, because they were successfully banned by the American Senate. It got to the point that it was illegal to have comic books with the words strange, weird and terror in them. All of these adjectives were struck out, so eventually EC had to fold. I guess this show is my off-handed tribute to them -- those poor bastards!"

This "off-handed tribute" doesn't conclude Woolfe's association with the bizarre subjects more often associated with high-budget effects and computer animation. His next show, in which he will co-star with Mary Francis Moore, is a love triangle between "an over-educated office worker, a trapeze artist and an ancient, malevolent mouse."

"[Sideshow director] Michael Waller is directing another show I've written, called Grendelmouse, which is for two actors and puppets," Woolfe explains before launching into the stranger-than-fiction account of his inspiration for the play.

"I was living in an apartment that was rundown but pleasant. Then the superintendent died and suddenly there were cockroaches everywhere and a mouse -- a mouse I couldn't kill! I set every sort of trap, but I couldn't defeat it. I even bought a glue trap. The mouse stepped in it, and I swear to God it looked down at the glue and looked up at me and smiled.

"Then, rather than chewing its foot, it crawled across the floor -- snickering to itself -- and it squeezed under the fridge and the trap got stuck. It removed the trap from its foot using the fridge as a lever. I decided it must have been alive for a hundred years and it was definitely smarter than me." - JH