Presented by Company One
Created for the stage by Julian Courch and Phelim McDermott
Original music and Lyrics by The Tiger Lillies
Adapted from Heinrich Hoffmann’s The Struwwelpeter
Music Direction by Walter Sickert
Directed by Steven Bogart
Featuring Walter Sickert and the Army of Broken Toys
Review by Danielle Rosvally
(Boston, MA) All the macabre poetic whimsy of Edward Gorey combined with the nostalgic cartoony lines of Disney’s Haunted Mansion are on display in Company One’s Shockheaded Peter. Fans of local band Walter Sickert and the Army of Broken Toys will recognize the musical style of this production, and new aficionados are in for a treat. The Toys bring their incredible sense of boisterous musicality and penchant for dark themes to this ninety minutes piece that marries puppetry with physical performance to create a poetic ode to infanticide.
The music is supporting with top-notch sound design by Joel Simches. The trouble with excellent sound design is that it (literally) fades into the background of a piece; a good sound designer is not often hailed as a production hero. One can only hope that Simches wins Company One’s MVP this year for his subtle work on Shockheaded Peter.
The world of the play is a Victorian dollhouse. The props and costumes (designed by Seth Shaw and Miranda Giurleo) feature bold lines and interesting design elements that take you from a literal reality into a world of hyper-reality. This is emphasized by the work of MC Alexandria King who manages to portray a character at once poetic and daunting, dark and humorous; the perfect combination of the narrator from Pippin, the emcee from Cabaret, and Blabberwort the troll from the 2000 miniseries The Tenth Kingdom. The masks and puppets (designed and created by Eric Bornstein) emphasize this reality; from the grotesque Shockheaded Peter (which will make you fear babies for the rest of your life if you don’t already), to the fully functional biting dog, to the thumb-sucking infant with a surprise ending to his story; the puppets are at once real/not real. The bold lines of the costumes combined with thematic style of the puppets and a collapsing, revolving box set that outlines the onstage action as though it were taking place inside a doll’s house makes an audience consider the actors themselves as puppets; all onstage are subject to the whims of the story.
The show plays with the theme of Post-Mortem photography; a Victorian tradition that came with the invention of daguerreotype (a technology which would take your portrait, but only if you sat still for a prolonged period of time; one thing that dead people are very good at doing). The performance consists of a series of anecdotes decidedly German in flavor (the source text should not come as a surprise to anyone at all familiar with Grimms’ Fairy Tales) in which naughty children are punished with a death that suits their particular offenses. A daguerreotype device sits downstage right for the duration of the show and is used for a posed picture after every death anecdote; a whimsical yet looming reminder that immortal longings are just one click away at any turn.
The show uses clever tricks to make their ensemble of fully-grown actors into various children-sized people over its course. One particularly memorable instance involved the use of three ensemble members wearing large cat masks and playing cats on the downstage apron. This made their actress playing the child (who was en pointe in a frenetic and quite literal dance of death) look smaller by comparison; these elegant and effective tricks encouraged the cartoony nature of the show and forced audience members to re-examine every aspect of the production. Nothing, in this world of whimsy, is as it seems.
The performances given by the incredibly talented ensemble are top-notch. The sheer amount of energy that these actors muster in order to bring forth a mentally, emotionally, and physically demanding piece like this one is astounded. Prepare to be blown away.
With two pay-what-you can ($6 minimum) performances (3/8 at 2:00 PM and 3/15 at 2:00 PM), there is simply no excuse not to see Shockheaded Peter. Do it for the band. Do it for the puppets. Or do it for the dead children. Just make sure you don’t miss it.