New York City Theater
Little Shubert Theatre
Eat your soup - or you'll waste away!
Don't play with matches - or you'll catch on fire!
Don't suck your thumbs - or the scissors man will cut them off!
And the children who don't heed such advice will end up - dead! As they do in "Shockheaded Peter," the ghoulishly funny evening that owes its origin to "Struwwelpeter" ("Slovenly Peter"), the classic book of 19th-century German cautionary tales that Heinrich Hoffmann wrote for his three-year-old son in 1844.
Gleefully and inventively directed by Julian Crouch and Phelim McDermott, "Peter" takes place on a toy stage, fronted by a crimson curtain and with a deep perspective (it may remind you of Victorian penny-dreadfuls). The evening can best be summed up as a combination of Roald Dahl, Edward Gorey, Tim Burton, Grand Guignol and the Brothers Grimm.
But it has its own idiosyncratic devilishness. At the start, Julian Bleach, the white-faced, stringbean host announces, "I am the greatest actor that has ever existed" and proceeds to intersperse his evening-long emceeing with hammy and hilarious bursts from "Hamlet" and "Richard III." In a series of sketches, adults (played by actors) give their children (played by puppets) the above-mentioned dire warnings. Disobedient and pitiful, children become skeletons, are consumed by fire (a clever prop dress with fiery fabric), ooze blood (actually, red ribbons) and meet various other macabre fates.
"Dead" is usually the last word of the grisly-but-lovely songs that accompany the sketches. At one point, the audience is encouraged to shout out that last word which, by this point, they've learned to expect. The tunes, composed by Martyn Jacques, are performed by The Tiger Lillies, a grotesque trio (accordion, percussion, double bass) headed by Jacques himself who sings in an eerie falsetto voice. The lyrics are sometimes hard to understand, but the effect is surreal.
The title character is the monstrous offspring of a childless couple. Carried in by a stork, greeted with rapture, Peter soon grows to gigantic proportions, his hair like out-of-control wheat, his fingers sprouting huge talons. Horrified, the parents bury him beneath the floorboards and are, later, punished for their deed with these yummy lyrics:
"Just look at him, there he stands
With his nasty hair and his nasty hands,
We'll see his nails, they're never cut,
They're all grimy and full of soot;
And the sloven, I declare,
Has never once combed his hair;
Anything to me is sweeter
Than Shockheaded Peter."
The show doesn't sustain itself all the way -- sameness and
settle in about half way through (the running time is an intermissionless hour and 40 minutes) -- but matters quickly improve and the overall effect is delicious. For tykes, the scarier the better, of course. For college kids and yuppies, it's a must. For the rest of us, revenge on the society of our childhoods is sweet indeed.
-- David Rosenberg
Feb. 26, 2005