When actor Jacob Athyal steps through a door of the drawing room arranged onstage, there’s a round of spontaneous applause from the cast and crew scattered throughout the orchestra space of the Modern Theatre. The response is to the large mask he’s wearing, apparently for the first time in rehearsal. It definitely has a grotesque effect, suggesting perhaps an elongated cow’s skull with a stringy, orange beard.
The team needs to get this moment right. The script calls for the unnamed creature to look “truly horrific,” and even that vague phrase is one of the most specific staging demands made by the authors. Athyal scoops up a prop that’s standing in for the puppet of Conrad, a little boy who had his thumbs cut off because he wouldn’t stop sucking them.
“This is the ominous, Conrad-being-pulled-away music?” director Steven Bogart asks his team, as a burst of truly spooky music fills the air. It is. “It doesn’t get more ominous than that,” Bogart says with some bemused satisfaction.
None of the children in “Shockheaded Peter” is safe, and in this case, neither is the father; after the exit of the appropriately horrific creature, he’s swallowed up in a very claustrophobic bit of business.
Death by horrific means is all around in this truly twisted musical, but death-by-thumb-snipping has never seemed so fun. The slender, 23-page script is based on “The Struwwelpeter,” a Victorian-era collection of often-gruesome cautionary tales for children, written in verse by Heinrich Hoffmann. Aside from an establishing scene at the top of the show, the script is mainly made up of song lyrics, interstitial text spoken by an emcee, and some basic stage directions. It leaves most of the creative decisions in the hands of whatever group of artists is staging it.
So it seems a truly inspired move for Company One Theatre to team Walter Sickert & the Army of Broken Toys, a self-described “steamcrunk” band fond of musical oddity, with director Bogart. Bogart, onetime mentor of the theatrically minded chanteuse Amanda Palmer, was 56 when he made his professional debut in 2010, directing Palmer in an American Repertory Theater production of “Cabaret.” He left his job as drama teacher at Lexington High School after that and has worked steadily ever since; right now he’s fresh off a production of “Pinocchio” at Wheelock Family Theatre that was informed by traditional Japanese Kabuki theater. He once directed a student production of the seemingly merry “Seussical” in which the Whos were envisioned as survivors of Hurricane Katrina.
“It’s about the idea of burying our inner child,” Bogart says of this Company One production, “the way we treat children, the way we try to educate them, the way we try to tell them how to behave and how to think and how to imagine. And that we do things as adults unintentionally, sometimes intentionally, to suppress or oppress the child’s imagination. So that speaks to me very strongly as an educator in public school for many years, in the arts. It was always about trying to encourage students’ imagination rather than trying to control their imagination.”
At the Modern, Bogart has stationed some of the band on the upper level of a two-story set, while others move around through the house.
Hoffman’s lyric poems depict one child dying as a result of his misdeeds, with the others merely being punished severely. It’s no spoiler to note that in “Shockheaded Peter,” they all die. Well, crucially, one is locked away under the drawing room, and though his fingernails grow through the floorboards at one point, we have to wait to find out what happens to him.
In the series of vignettes, one child is slovenly, another is chubby, another is dangerously fond of playing with matches. Sickert and band have fleshed out the original arrangements to suit their seven-piece ensemble, and songs like “Conrad” and “Bully Boys” emerge, despite their grim subject matter, as demented sing-alongs with more than a tinge of carnival flavor. The violence in the story is pushed to some place on the spectrum between truly scary and almost farcical; Bogart says it’s all about pushing the notion of punishment to an extreme.
This adaptation of Hoffmann’s work was created by Julian Crouch and Phelim McDermott as a devised piece with their English troupe, with music and lyrics by the off-kilter trio the Tiger Lillies. It premiered in London in 1998 but had yet to enjoy a professional production in New England. This production begins performances on Friday and runs through April 4.
It seems entirely fitting that Sickert saw a production of “Shockheaded Peter” in New York when he was a teenager, and it proved a formative moment for him. Later, the Broken Toys’ first-ever tour included an opening slot for none other than the Tiger Lillies. Sickert says he sucked up insight into the band’s approach, and “Shockheaded Peter” specifically, over post-show drinks.
The play “reminds me of when you’re a kid and you stay up past your bedtime so you can see a horror movie you’re not supposed to be seeing,” Sickert says. “You know you’re being naughty, you know you’re getting away with something, but you’re really excited to get away with it. And then you definitely have some kind of a [expletive] nightmare after that.”
As the narrator-emcee, Alexandria King is charged with leading the audience through this whole experience. She says it’s been a process of figuring out how to balance the blend of light and dark.
“Humor always helps us tell the saddest stories, doesn’t it?” King says. “Humor is used to tell this story, as tragic as it is, because it’s needed. If we can’t laugh our way through it, we may break from the reality of the darkness. And that’s what I like about it.”
Jeremy D. Goodwin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.