February 23, 2005, Wednesday
THEATER REVIEW: 'SHOCKHEADED
for Bad Children (and Grown-Ups, Too)
Sara Krulwich/The New York Times
Julian Bleach in "Shockheaded Peter," which includes vignettes about thumb-suckers
losing thumbs and picky eaters turning into skeletons.
By BEN BRANTLEY
It all begins with the sound
of meandering footsteps, ominous but curiously clumsy, as if something
wicked had lost its way. In the teasing opening seconds of the sensational
- in all senses of the word - "Shockheaded Peter," you're likely to experience
that mixed thrill that is part giggle and part goose flesh, the kind that
descends when you hear a sudden thud in a dark and quiet house. You suspect
that whatever lurks behind the red velvet curtains of the Little Shubert
Theater, where "Shockheaded Peter" opened last night, is either truly
fearsome or really ridiculous. Trust your instincts: "Shockheaded Peter"
is, oh, so deliciously, both.
Therein lies the genius of this one-of-a-kind "nasty picture book" of
a musical, in which badly behaved Victorian tots come to ghastly ends.
A spiky, subversive riff on Heinrich Hoffmann's "Struwwelpeter," a droll
collection of grisly bedtime stories from the mid-19th century, "Shockheaded
Peter" is both the silliest and the most sinister show in town. It is
also, as it happens, one of the smartest.
Directed with unstinting imagination and brazen assurance by Julian Crouch
and Phelim McDermott, and featuring bizarrely beautiful songs by Martyn
Jacques, "Shockheaded Peter" manages to wallow in and tear apart our enduring
appetite for scaring ourselves and our children. And while its medium
is the moldy conventions of Victorian melodramas and peep shows, this
British import makes contemporary exercises in self-spoofing horror like
Wes Craven's "Scream" movies look like, well, child's play.
"Shockheaded Peter" was first seen in New York in a limited engagement
at the New Victory Theater five years ago. (It has since been staged several
times in London, where it picked up an Olivier Award for best entertainment
in 2002.) The show returns to Manhattan in the less intimate Little Shubert,
but it definitely expands in all the right ways to fill its new space.
It feels bigger, tighter and even more audacious in its calculated creakiness.
For few shows have ever been as good at being bad as "Shockheaded Peter"
is. Its admonitory vignettes, in which thumb-suckers lose their thumbs
and picky eaters turn into skeletons, are overseen by a cadaverous master
of ceremonies who wants nothing more than to frighten his audience into
submission. But as portrayed by Julian Bleach, this seedy, hatchet-faced
ghoul brings to mind Charles Dickens's accounts of inept grandstanding
actors who manage to sabotage every big moment.
Stooping to fit into Mr. Crouch and Graeme Gilmour's cramped, multi-doored
diorama of a set, Mr. Bleach is a master of miscues and mangled timing.
His baleful stares into the audience always last a few seconds too long;
his grand gothic postures are a deflating fraction off-center; his creepy
spiels on "the darkest recesses of the human imagination" are too grandly
intoned to be taken seriously.
Or are they? As exaggerated as he is, Mr. Bleach's M.C. also conveys the
genuine nastiness of the power wielded by grown-ups who enjoy terrifying
children "for their own good" (a type of character that was another specialty
of Dickens). Like another, more famous M.C., the one who presides over
a Weimar-era nightclub in the musical "Cabaret," this one embodies the
most prurient instincts of his age. He also somehow summons every paddle-wielding
gym instructor and hellfire-conjuring disciplinarian from your youth,
repackaged in Grand Guignol drag: a figure of sport, yes, but still potent
enough to make you shiver.
Then there is the music, performed by the trio Tiger Lillies and led by
Mr. Jacques, who plays a mournful accordion and sings of cruel deaths
in a sweet but strident countertenor. The songs feature gloatingly gruesome
lyrics, adapted from Hoffmann's stories, and the Kabuki-faced, androgynous
Mr. Jacques delivers them with a relish that turns demonic whenever the
word dead crops up. (He keeps repeating it, like a record stuck in a groove.)
Like Mr. Bleach, Mr. Jacques is a virtuoso of the anticlimax. He overextends
his songs' grim conclusions to the point of absurdity. Yet the music,
which captures the flavor of lurid Victorian street ballads without ever
merely imitating them, gets under your skin and stays there. (Mr. Jacques's
singing "snip, snip, the scissors go" will not leave my mind.)
The same double-edged sensibility infuses every detail of "Shockheaded
Peter": the blatantly fake two-dimensional scenery, the shabby period
costumes (by Kevin Pollard), the sepulchral lighting (by Jon Linstrum),
the pasteboard flames and waves that consume foolish girls and boys, and
the exquisite, battered-looking puppets that pass through in a stumbling
parade of the doomed. And the entire 10-member ensemble, wearing harsh
Dr. Caligari-style makeup, is of a perfect piece with the stylized environment.
Children reared on Lemony Snicket books and Tim Burton movies are unlikely
to experience nightmares because they went to "Shockheaded Peter." Their
parents are another matter. The title narrative that frames the other
stories in the show is about a couple who dispose of an unseemly infant
who doesn't match their sweet Victorian home.
The husband and wife's subsequent slide into dementia becomes a sneaky
allegory of repression that only grown-ups can fully appreciate. The attendant
images, for all their obvious artificiality, are as contaminating as guilty
dreams. Let me just say that your first impulse, on returning home from
the Little Shubert, will probably be to trim your fingernails.
SHOCKHEADED PETER: Created
by Julian Bleach, Anthony Cairns, Julian Crouch, Graeme Gilmour, Tamzin
Griffin, Jo Pocock, Phelim McDermott, Michael Morris and the Tiger Lillies,
Martyn Jacques, Adrian Huge and Adrian Stout. Directed by Mr. Crouch and
Mr. McDermott. Music composed by Mr. Jacques; lyrics adapted from Heinrich
Hoffmann by Mr. Jacques. Production design by Mr. Crouch and Mr. Gilmour.
Costumes by Kevin Pollard; lighting by Jon Linstrum; sound by Mic Pool
and Roland Higham; resident director, Heidi Miami Marshall; music supervisor,
Shawn Gough; production manager, Aurora Productions; production stage
manager, Elizabeth Burgess; company manager, R. Erin Craig; general management,
John Corker and Dan Markley; associate producers, Ian Osborne, C. Wiesenfeld/M.
McCarthy and Alisa E. Regas; executive producers, Linda Brumbach, Michael
Morris, Christine Gettins; music director, Mr. Jacques. The Cultural Industry's
production presented by Mr. Markley, Alan J. Schuster, Pomegranate Arts,
Shockheaded Media Ltd., Harriet Newman Leve, Sonny Everett, Michael Skipper,
True Love Productions, Dede Harris/Morton Swinsky. At the Little Shubert
Theater, 422 West 42nd Street, Clinton. Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes.
WITH: Julian Bleach, Anthony Cairns, Graeme Gilmour, Tamzin Griffin, Rebekah
Wild and the Tiger Lillies, Adrian Huge, Martyn Jacques and Adrian Stout.