The Madness at Moorgate Prison

Liberty Hall, 311 N. Ivy, 249-8888, Fri-Sat 9 pm, Sat 6 pm, Sun 3 pm, closes June 27, $5

W ith flexible wooden joints that move in a way that is somehow jerky and supple, marionettes present a bizarre, funhouse mirror of human physicality. The good folks at The Castiron Carousel--Portland's marionette troupe--present a rare glimpse of these strange little puppets with The Madness at Moorgate Prison, an uneven original show that never ceases to entertain.

My experience with marionettes prior to Madness was limited to the film Being John Malkovich, wherein the marionette operation was superb, and obviously funded by an enormous Hollywood budget. The Castiron Carousel does not have such a budget, and thus their skill with the marionettes is spotty at best. Oftentimes the marionettes just sort of jiggle around to indicate which one is supposed to be talking, and when they walk they sort of float, as opposed to taking detailed, natural looking steps. To be fair, marionettes, with their complicated system of strings, are hard to operate, and what Castiron lacks in marionette virtuosity, they make up for in set design. The tiny stage features five different set pieces, each with detailed, doll-sized props and furniture, and elaborate paint jobs. They also have penned a kooky, morbidly funny script about a prison run by 200-year-old "soul-sucking fiends" who execute prisoners rampantly in order to feed their unholy cravings.

The sheer weirdness of this premise, combined with some genuinely witty lines, keeps Madness compelling, though it may also be its downfall in terms of reaching a large audience. A marionette show, after all--and not necessarily fairly--seems like something kids would be more inclined to see than adults. But the Madness at Moorgate Prison features numerous electrocution scenes that are impressively grisly and disturbing, as well as a dark humor sensibility that youngsters just won't understand. So, grown-ups: it's up to you to support this quirky little ensemble. It plays on a little stage with little wooden people in the middle of North Portland NowhereLand, but if you buck the odds and make the trek you'll be treated to something oddly fascinating, and at times, downright delightful. JUSTIN WESCOAT SANDERS