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A CurtainUp Review
Original Shockheaded Peter Review at the Kennedy Center
Shockheaded Peter, at the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater, only through October 3, is, in my memory, the most innovative piece of theatre to play that space.
Based on the so-called children's book, Struwwelpeter, written in the mid 19th-century by Heinrich Hoffman, the current staged version manages to combine elements of grand guignol, melodrama, musical hall, farce, freak show, penny dreadfuls, and satire that doesn't just bite,
it swallows the audience whole. Hoffman, whose day job was running a lunatic asylum (and, no, I did not make that up), did not care for the children's books available when his own children were young and so he wrote his own. Hence Struwwelpeter, ten morality tales dealing with such malfeasance as thumb-sucking, fidgeting, not eating one's soup, and so on. That these simple stories have been turned into a piece of "junk opera" -- their term, not mine - by the Improbable Theatre, a troupe of very gifted English actors, designers and musicians - is really very remarkable. But so is everything about this show.
From the moment the narrator (played brilliantly by Julian Bleach) enters, the audience is knocked off its guard. The spindly Bleach, dressed in Dickensian robes (i.e. top hat and black coat with one (intentionally) ripped underarm seam) and over the top mortifying make up, deadpans lines about the "monsters in our minds." He also announces that he is the greatest actor in the world and then proceeds to send up Sir Laurence Olivier and highly mannered, over-the-top acting. Towards the end of the evening he chastises the audience, "You don't get it, Washington, do you?"" which, for some in the audience, is true. Washington is conventional; Shockheaded Peter is not.
The set, which looks just like the toy theatres made by Pollack that generations of British children have grown up with, immediately makes one wonder what is wrong with this picture. Then it hits: this show is, in every way, a distortion of the truth. Within the Eisenhower's proscenium, lies another proscenium arch, and another, and another.Some nine doors and windows and a trap in the floor are put to use often. The humans are taller than the door spaces. When the script calls for a "withdrawing room,""two dimensional furniture is carried on to the stage by the players. Puppets - made of what looks like soft foam -- with their handlers clearly visible, working alongside the actors, are integrated into the stories.
Shockheaded Peter is the macabre story of a young and childless couple who yearn for a baby. Be careful, it says, what you wish for because when the stork (yes, there is a larger-than-life stork) arrives bearing its bundle, joy may not be what ensues. In fact, the child has matted hair and long dirty fingernails and is somewhat grotesque.His imperfections are numerous and he definitely does not conform to the bourgeois ideal of a baby. Horrified by the infant, whom they name Peter, the formerly childless couple bury the offensive infant under the floorboards, only to witness in later years the grown child's emergence. Be careful, says the narrator, we all have demons living underfoot. Meanwhile, the audience is treated to ten stories in 105 minutes -- riffs on punishments fitting such crimes as playing with fire, sucking one's thumb, refusing to eat one's soup, fidgeting, and so on.
A word about the music. That too is indefinable. Part music hall, part Piaf, with a bit of Weill thrown in, the Tiger Lilies - a trio led by singer and accordionist Martyn Jacques, accompanied by a drummer and a double bass, leave you panting for more. They have already recorded several CD's (details below) and have a large cult following in Europe. Jacques - and I do not wish to give away the surprise - has an extraordinary voice. Is it falsetto, countertenor, heldentenor, or, dare I say it, castrato? Hard to tell but it is sweet as is his tightly controlled performance.
Another example of the ensemble's many talents is that no one person is responsible for one facet of the production. The set is clever, the costumes are brilliant. The voices are excellent - although some of the lyrics get lost in the cavernous Eisenhower Theater - and there isn't a bad performance So credit must and should be given to everyone involved with the Improbable Theatre . Here are the names: Julian Crouch, Phelim McDermott, Julian Bleach, Anthony Cairns, Graeme Gilmour, Tamzin Griffin, Jon Linstrum, Jo Pocock, Kevin Pollard, and Mic Pool.
Note: After its 5-performance run at the Kennedy Center ends October 3, Shockheaded Peter moves on to the Society for the Performing Arts in Houston Texas, from October 7 to 9, then on to the New Victory Theatre, 209 West 42nd Street, New York City, (212) 239-6200, from October 14 to 31, the perfect Halloween date. If this show does not become a hit with New York's hip theatre crowd, I'll go to bed without my supper.
Reviewed by Susan Davidson September 30, 1999
Shockheaded Peter at the New Victory
A horrid wicked boy was he;
He caught the flies, poor little things,
And then tore off their tiny wings
For his comeuppance Frederick was sent to bed with a bad-tasting tonic. Susan Davidson ended her report on this terrific new look at a grizzly children's tale stating "If this show does not become a hit with New York's hip theatre crowd, I'll go to bed without my supper." Well, no comeuppance for you, Susan. Tuck in your bib and bon appetit. The crowd I saw at the New Victory did indeed respond with a hip, hip and hurrah to the Improbable Theater Group's "junk opera." Given the show's short run I won't burden you with a lengthy second rappraisal so you can use the time to call up for a ticket and see it all for yourself.
I would add that while the New Victory has a double balcony, it is not cavernous like the Kennedy Center so Martyn Jacques' amazing falsetto and all the lyrics come across very clearly. A word too about Susan's suggestion to leave the kiddies at home despite this being based on a book of rhymes for toddlers. The people at the New Victory box office bill the show as for those aged 12 and up. In an interview in The New York Times the show's British producer, Michael Morris bears this out. Morris admits that the show was never conceived as a children's show and that the few performances at which children predominated did not work. On the other hand, he sees it as a show for many audiences which works best when all those audiences, including kids, are represented. The matinee I attended had just the mix he considers ideal. Adults predominated but there was also a substantial sprinkling of youngsters, some no more than six or seven. I didn't hear one frightened scream. The predominant noise from the audience, young and old, was laughter.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 10/17/99 matinee performance
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co. Click image to buy.
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At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2003 Movie and Video Guide
Ridiculous!The Theatrical Life & Times of Charles Ludlam
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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