If you’re a fan of Edward Gorey’s wee alphabetical assassinations, then Company One and Suffolk University’s SHOCKHEADED PETER should be on your calendar. The original SHOCKHEADED PETER was a children’s book of verses written in 1845 by German Psychiatrist Heinrich Hoffmann to encourage (read ‘scare’) children into behaving themselves. A mere 150 years later, PETER is turned into a Grand Guignol theater piece for the London stage—with the band The Tiger Lillies signing on to compose a score which makes Hoffmann’s punishments even harsher, immensely creepier and quite Teutonic with their dark Brecht/Weil brand of music.
The current version of SHOCKHEADED PETER (at the Modern Theater through April 4th) is the brainchild of wunderkind Walter Sickert (and his rock band, The Army of Broken Toys). Sickert’s jaunty, sardonic vocals and playful personality reminded me of Dr. John’s cheeky, laid back keyboard style. (That’s high praise from this Dr. John fan.) Sickert’s orchestrations are the perfect setting for the lethal little vignettes. (And he’s a gifted artist: His intricate, fanciful illustrations take form in SHOCKHEADED PETER as props and puppets.)
The Army of Broken Toys musicians become a vital part of the drama, punctuating the gruesome stories with bells, whistles, toy piano and concertina. They’re a Greek chorus, cheerleaders and a crowd when needed. Imagine Tim Burton’s THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS: Now that’s the spirit of SHOCKHEADED PETER, where horrors seem whimsical, even funny.
Director Steven Bogart’s remarkable actors exaggerate their movements (and their faces) so they, as well as the stories, seem surreal. A powerful, maniacal emcee (Alexandria King), channeling Joel Gray from CABARET, leads us through “the darkest recesses of human imagination” where we meet very naughty children--and Jade Guerra and Brooks Reeves as disappointed parents (when the stork brings them a strange Shockheaded baby with long nails borrowed from Edward Scissorhands. They put him out of sight in the basement). You know that every so often, we will hear scratching from below.
The artistry involved in each little story is what elevates the production: The girl who disobeys her parents and plays with matches wears a costume (by Miranda Giurleo) which cleverly converts to disaster via her petticoats. Flying Robert is whisked into the stratosphere with a wire and pulley system. Letting us see the magic doesn’t detract at all from our enjoyment. Of course, being a vegetarian, I was delighted to see a rabbit get the better of a hunter. And the troupe even gives us a moral to the story. The emcee asks us what’s beneath our floorboards!