Praetorius Wuthergloom is a 142 year-old widower, an itinerant mediciner of supernatural blight & exorcist–the titles he gives himself—whose most recent extravaganza ended tonight, alas, with the closing performance of his show at the Red Sandcastle Theatre. Be not afeared, he might say, for there’s another show coming at the end of the month, The House on Poe Corner.
Don’t be confused. Yes there’s a book with a similar name, a comforting tale to help children sleep at bedtime. This is just a bit different, still involving cute stuffed bears but possibly not quite ideal material to send them off to sleep.
Eric Woolfe is the genius behind both the medicine show and the upcoming urs-travaganza (“ursus” = bear, right?), a man of many talents. As in Madhouse Variations and last year’s Frankenstein’s Boy, we’re in the presence of a gifted actor who shares the stage with puppets. Woolfe brings them to life, while also portraying several characters himself over the course of the performance. His sensibility is one of a kind, taking its cue from the imagery of gothic horror. I find I am often right on the edge between laughing uncontrollably, and cringing at grotesque images.
Bring children into the mix –as he did downstairs for the second part of the show—and he’s upping the ante, making the game that much more powerful emotionally, and the thrills or laughs that much more explosive. There can be moments of great poignancy, yet it’s all done with the artifice in full view, no mistaking the puppets for real people. And even so we are swallowed up in this world of the supernatural.
I ask myself afterwards if it’s something about me that makes me so susceptible. Am I a sucker for puppets? In the Medicine Show, Woolfe as Wuthergloom shows a talent I never suspected (or one he recently added to his repertoire) for magic. And is the readiness to believe in magic possibly related to the readiness to be persuaded by puppets? I recall hearing that some people are easier to hypnotize than others, and wonder if maybe some of us are already so hooked on symbolism and metaphors that we are ready for whatever Woolfe might offer, dreaming with our eyes open. Is it possibly one of those fancy psychology words like “apophenia” or “pareidolia”? The fact I prefer opera to spoken theatre (in other words, a medium that is patently unbelievable) suggests I am not precisely a junkie for verisimilitude, otherwise Wagner wouldn’t have such a hold on my imagination. Maybe I shouldn’t hold my breath for an Eldritch Theatre adaptation of Pelléas et Mélisande. But even so there seem to be huge points of contact between the more symbolic classical media such as certain operas and ballets on the one hand, and puppet theatre. Maeterlinck’s puppet plays (of with P & M is one) tell horror stories. While I laugh loudly at what Woolfe is doing –at least the last couple of shows I saw—he has the rigor & passion to do operas if he wanted to (but I doubt that he has any interest in telling such stories…sigh!).
All of this is heightened when brought into the presence of children, or the reminders of children such as teddy bears. In The Silence of the Lambs one of the most powerful scenes (ha you’re probably waiting for me to describe something involving murder & blood) is the one that gives the film its name. Clarice tells Dr Lecter about the time she tried to rescue a lamb from slaughter. The innocence of the young child–in her recollection– confronted with the vulnerability of the lamb is overwhelmingly powerful.
Yet I believe Debussy did it better or perhaps with a subtler agenda than the film, wonderful as it is. In P & A my favourite scene is one where a little boy is mystified by silent lambs. Does the title of the film come from this scene in the opera? It’s scary precisely because we don’t have the overdone response from Jody Foster recalling her childhood response, her exhaustion trying to haul a big lamb away. No, it’s simply a child with a series of questions that leave us staring into the dark. The unanswerable questions a child would ask often take us to a blunt confrontation with such horror that one pathway is to provoke our laughter and horror together. It’s tougher though to prolong the suspense, leaving us wondering what’s happening.
Oh! oh! j’entends pleurer les moutons… (I hear the sheep crying)
[and a minute or so later]
Maintenant ils se taisent tous… (why are they silent now?)
Berger! Pourquoi ne parlent-ils plus? (Shepherd! Why are they silent?)
Le berger (the shepherd)
Parce que ce n’est (because that’s not the path
pas le chemin de l’étable.. to the stable)
Où vont-ils? (where are they going?
Berger? berger? où vont-ils? Shepherd, where are they going?)
See for yourself,, and sorry that I couldn’t find a youtube version with subtitles, which is why i added these excerpts from the text (there might be one but you’d be watching 3 hours of opera, not three minutes of the little boy).
I am eager to see Eldritch Theatre’s House on Poe Corner to be presented Oct 29th – Nov 7th.