Fairytales have never been as grim as they are in “Shockheaded Peter,” a cleverly fiendish mash-up of morality play and the macabre. In Cygnet Theatre’s enormously creative venture into the bizarro world, a string of naughty children gets what’s coming to them. Do they ever: A petulant thumb sucker gets his appendages snipped off. A fussy eater wastes away to skull and bones. A precocious tot who plays with matches gets burned … to death. Yet in this musical adaptation of German psychiatrist Heinrich Hoffmann’s children’s book “Der Struwwelpeter,” it’s all in diabolical fun.
Unlike in Hoffmann’s original fables, the tykes of “Shockheaded Peter,” be they Cruel Frederick, Johnny Head-in-Air or the Bully Boys, always meet with fatal consequences. The authors of this 1998 transmogrification are Julian Crouch and Phelim McDermott of London’s Improbable Theatre, along with the British musical trio The Tiger Lillies, progenitors of what’s come to be known as Brechtian punk cabaret. “Shockheaded Peter” is all that and more, a theatrical carnival of garish face paint, animal heads and masks, puppetry and acrobatics. What must be a daunting challenge to bring off in one 90-minute show is met with ingenuity at Cygnet under the direction of Rob Lutfy, along with a gifted production team that includes costume and puppet designer Shirley Pierson and choreographer Michael Mizerany.
“Shockheaded Peter’s” nightmare-before-bedtime stories are played out for horrified laughter by a versatile ensemble frequently manipulating props and puppets. The two characters out front are the mustached Emcee (Sarah Errington, in a knowing role that’s a little too cool for school) and Siren (Steve Gouveia), the proceedings’ frightening balladeer. With his evil-clown fright wig and painted face, and wearing a tutu, stockings and lace-up boots, he is “Shockheaded Peter’s” creepiest and funniest figure. He’s also the one who’ll be in your anxious thoughts as you walk to your car. A veteran of Cygnet’s campy “The Rocky Horror Show” last year, Gouveia is an even bigger scream here.
Less inspired is “Shockheaded Peter’s” side story about two Victorian-age parents (Adrian Alita and Kevane La’Marr Coleman) who banish their orange-haired, prolifically fingernailed infant beneath the floorboards, only to be deservedly haunted into madness later on. Their appearances on stage, particularly early in the going, unfold slowly and lack the frenetic mischief of the fables. On the other hand, an acrobatic departure near show’s end, the engrossing tale of “Flying Robert,” finds Danielle Airey, clad in an ice blue body suit, climbing a ribbony rope from the rafters, entwining herself and swinging high above the stage. Throughout, Gouveia and Errington gently croon a Tiger Lillies ballad in what is “Shockheaded Peter’s” awe sequence amid all its shocks.
It’s tempting to intellectualize the lessons “Shockheaded Peter” would seem to proffer about misguided parenting and misbehaving children, lessons that no doubt Heinrich Hoffmann implied in his 19th-century book of verse. But why? This is a show to be savored for its thrills and chills and, like a dream, for its sheer incongruity.
Steve Gouveia (foreground, left) and Sarah Errington (in bunny suit) in "Shockheaded Peter." Photo credit: Daren Scott
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.