Live Active Cultures

As much as I enjoy the Halloween season (and its endless supply of column material), by the time Oct. 31 finally rolls around I've had more than my fill of fake blood and fog fluid. Even the high-end haunted houses all start to look pretty much the same after a while. That's why I'm happy I ended this spooky season with something so singular that it cleansed the Karo syrup right off my aesthetic palate. For me, the extra-dark gourmet chocolate bar in my 2009 trick-or-treat bag was Macabre Vignettes II, the astonishing art installation inhabiting the Cameo Theatre through Nov. 8.

When I was growing up, my next-door neighbors built a haunted house in their basement each year. The bare-bones effects inevitably blew my mind; the year I was finally allowed to participate by playing a severed head is forever etched in my memory. So I can barely imagine how exponentially more mind-expanding it would be to have grown up around the Marke family. Sisters Tamara Marke-Lares and Leah Marke, along with additional siblings, are responsible for one of the most amazing assemblages of artistic eccentricity I've ever encountered. In the absence of clichéd iconography or gratuitous gore, they employ an intensely personal kind of creepiness that evades straightforward explanation. In other words, you've got to see this to believe it.

Begin by stepping through an entryway of womblike woven walls into a Lynchian red hallway hung with Tamara's exceptional abstract artwork, each piece in a different (but equally eerie) style and medium. The cloth corridor opens up to reveal an alien world populated with a different strange creature in each corner. Here is a giant praying-mantis puppet (performed by Jack Fields) reaching for a cage full of oddly adorable paper birds; over there, spider-ladies ensnare their victim in yards of string, stabbing knitting needles into its stitched and stuffed skull. In the cobwebbed corner, a cybernetic nightmare surrounded by laboratory equipment and excised teeth serves as DJ, spinning a sinister orchestral soundtrack.

Layered upon the dreamscape sculpted by Tamara, Leah has set disturbingly lovely vignettes of choreography. In one, a victim struggles against a straitjacket-style costume, contorting on a clinical padded bed; in another, Leah and dancer Amanda Oost interpret the act of awaiting execution: A pyramid of chairs becomes a guillotine and hooded sweatshirts symbolize decapitation. (Full disclosure: Leah performs with Voci, my fiancee's modern dance company). Meanwhile, yet another sister squats in an oversized dollhouse decorated with Day of the Dead dolls, gleeful when her domino display is accidentally flattened ("I was waiting for someone to be brave enough to knock them over!").

The entire exhibit exudes such care and quality in every lovingly hand-stitched detail, it's easy to see why Heather Henson of Ibex Puppetry would want to sponsor this year's edition and absorb it into her fifth annual Orlando Puppet Festival. But it's equally confounding why Ibex paired the Markes' deliciously delicate work with late-night performances of Bride of Wildenstein: The Musical. Pinocchio's Marionette Theater president Sean Keohane introduced (in German, no less) the one-man performance as "a story of mad and twisted love … with puppets." Unfortunately, that was the first and last laugh of the next 45 minutes.

The real-life source material for this heavily fictionalized fable is fascinating: Google "Jocelyn Wildenstein" for photos of her face-ruining feline plastic surgery. But Marsian, the writer-director-performer-producer—puppet designer behind this mess, has made it into an awkward mix of drag, unfunny jokes and endless, unmemorable songs. Marsian's puppets have personality (especially the pet monkey), but as a performer he lacks comic timing, a sense of pitch and the breath to articulate his verbose lyrics. I appreciate clever camp and the concept of "so-bad-it's-good." But when compared to Macabre Vignettes II and its wonderfully well-crafted weirdness, Marsian's thudding Michael Jackson and diaper fetish jokes resemble shock without substance. Frankly, I spent most of the show feeling awful for the poor pre-tween kid squirming in a front-row seat.

C'est la vie. I suppose you must suffer the occasional trick to appreciate the treats.

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