‘Shockheaded Peter’ delivers bloodthirsty humor
Scooch over there a bit, “Sweeney Todd.’’ You too, “The Threepenny Opera.’’
Make some room for “Shockheaded Peter’’ in that strangely compelling theatrical space where the macabre, the mordant, and the merry coexist in . . . well, not harmony exactly, because harmoniousness is the last thing on the mind of this frenzied musical excursion into the realm of childhood nightmare.
Under the ingenious direction of Steven Bogart, the New England premiere of “Shockheaded Peter’’ – a coproduction of Company One Theatre and Suffolk University at the university’s Modern Theatre -- wants to jolt and disorient you. It does. It also wants to entertain you, and it does that too.
Led by the excellent Alexandria King as the emcee, a kind of tour guide from (and to) hell, Bogart’s cast proves equal to the unusual performance challenges presented by the material, a raucous depiction of the exceedingly grim fates met by misbehaving Victorian tykes.
To be sure, there is a wild disproportion between most of their childish “crimes’’ and the lethal consequences that ensue. A few song titles from the score by the Tiger Lillies may give you a sense of the production’s archly chilling flavor: “The Story of Cruel Frederick,’’ “The Dreadful Story About Harriet and the Matches,’’ “Snip Snip (Suck-a-Thumb’’).
A boy who won’t eat his soup meets a terrible end. So does a boy who ventures outside in a storm. The young lad who fidgets? Don’t ask. It’s a Dickens-meets-Grand Guignol world, ruled by arbitrary, clueless, or pitiless adults.
If seen literally, this subject matter is as grim and queasy-making as it gets, but the prevailing tone of Bogart’s production is one of gallows humor rather than shock-the-bourgeoise stridency. It helps that the children are played either by puppets (masterfully designed by Eric Bornstein) or by adult actors behaving in puppet-like fashion, their herky-jerky movements suggesting they’re being pulled by invisible strings. Michael Anania’s set is both artful and flexible in the way it accommodates each bizarre vignette.
Making an indispensable contribution is vocalist Walter Sickert, who sits on the side of the stage growling and snarling tunes in his gargling-with-gravel voice while the action unfolds, accompanied by his band, the Army of Broken Toys.
Adapters Julian Crouch and Phelim McDermott drew on Heinrich Hoffman’s “The Struwwelpeter,’’ an 1845 children’s book of tales meant to terrorize and instruct in roughly equal measure. Tonally and thematically, their adaptation evokes not just Sondheim, Brecht, and Weill but also, to this audience member at least, Walt Disney at his darkest (consider the harsh treatment of errant youngsters in 1940’s animated “Pinocchio’’) and even good old Dr. Seuss. The title character, a puppet whom we first see as a ghastly baby with orange hair and impossibly long fingernails, brings to mind a Grinch gone not just grinchy but downright satanic.
When they get a gander at their little bundle of joy, delivered by a giant stork, the baby’s horrified parents, played by Brooks Reeves and Jade Guerra, lock the infant away under the floorboards of their drawing room. But the sounds of scratching and pounding are strangely persistent — sounds that prey on their consciences, and that eventually take a, um, physical toll on the guilt-stricken couple.
An ominous mood punctuated by humor is established from the beginning. As we sit in darkness, a deep chord sounds. Then we hear the sound of clomping footsteps. When the lights come up we behold King, attired in high black boots and a blood-red corset (the production’s vivid costumes are designed by Miranda Giurleo). Eyes wide, alternately crooning and cackling as she points a finger at the audience, she’s a cross between the emcee in “Cabaret’’ and an even more demented, but self-aware, version of Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard.’’
King’s emcee does most of the talking; the rest of the cast largely performs in energetic pantomime. At the end of each grisly scene, the actors solemnly pose for a daguerreotype portrait. It’s a nod to the 19th-century practice of post-mortem photography, but in the context of “Shockheaded Peter,’’ it also feels like a sly comment on the way we whitewash the past, because you’d never guess the unsettling stories behind those pictures.