Crazyface showcases horror master Clive Barker

At its best, Clive Barker's Crazyface should be a mix of Candide and a Hieronymus Bosch painting — a picaresque journey right into the heart of hell. Shadow Horse Theatre doesn't quite get there, but still manages to produce an evening of startling visuals, unexpected humor, and grotesque violence.

Barker is best known as author of the groundbreaking six-volume Books of Blood and a string of bestselling novels over the past 30 years. He also directed the first two Hellraiser films, but his early career was spent as a playwright and actor in his native Liverpool.

The plays are a mixed bag. Barker was working out how to bring the thoughts and images in his mind to life. Apart from the intense The History of the Devil, Crazyface is likely his best play. It features the mix of sacred and profane, violence and sensuality that marks most of Barker's work.

Crazyface first appears with his mother and three sisters-in-law on the run from previous, unseen adventures. He wears clown makeup and a colorful patchwork coat — and leads a dead fish on a leash.

A chance encounter at a crossroads sets the play into motion. A Spanish spy is there to sell a vital secret to a foreign agent. After a bit of murder, Crazyface ends up with a puzzle box packed with that secret. It opens a figurative gateway to hell, and rival nations scour the landscape, murdering thousands, to find the secret.

Spanish agent and torturer Mengo sends his own weapon after the box: Crazyface's brother Lenny, who has been tortured to the point of madness. Lenny — think of the Joker if Jack Nicholson had played him like his character from The Shining — is ready to do plenty of violence to his brother.

Crazyface has allies of a sort. There is sister-in-law Annie, who offers almost incidental aid. Then there is the Angel. No one else can see or hear this magical creature, who is mainly interested in mentally tormenting our hero.

Barker weaves a compelling story out of these elements, but the scope of the piece is a challenge for any company, especially a smaller one like Shadow Horse.

The play is epic in every sense of the word, from the size of its cast (50 characters), to multiple settings, to its nearly three-hour length. That's a lot of balls to juggle, and director Paul von Stoetzel mostly keeps them in the air; the play has plenty of momentum.

But Barker's script could use a trim, and the material pushes the actors to the extreme. A lot of the folks we meet are greatly exaggerated — a family of pig farmers who wear pig noses, the foreign agents who are meant to be modern stereotypes of the nations they represent — which can make it hard to latch on to any of them. Eventually, the overwhelming madcap action wears the audience down as much as the play's length does.

Still, there is plenty to recommend here, especially Andy Schnabel in the lead role. He offers a mix of innocence and cunning, more acting the fool than actually being one. We want him to succeed — or at least survive the wars, torture, and threats of cannibalism — and escape this mad world.