Bizarre, but entertaining. Nightmarish. Comedic. Bombastic. That best describes Company One and Suffolk University’s co-production of sinister tale, “Shockheaded Peter,” making its New England premiere at Modern Theatre, through April 4.
Michael Morris originally conceived and produced the show for Cultural Industry, London, which premiered in 1998.
There’s a circus-y, carnival-like atmosphere when theatergoers enter. A hawker roams about, selling animal masks. The band strikes up, playing the rousing, attention-getting Struwwelpeter Overture, drawing our attention to the stage. After that, there’s no respite from this show’s wild, weird onslaught.
Set designer Michael Anania’s large box-like central structure opens, unfolds, into a living room, spins, and folds back up for scene changes, aiding this one-act,musical descent into madness and mayhem. And Joel Simches’ sounds, Justin Paice’s lighting and Eric Bornstein’s larger-than-life puppets and masks punctuate “Shockheaded Peter’s” creepiness.
Deftly directed by Steven Bogart, the show is a theatric experience that’s in-your-face, bold, brassy, and weird. You must see it to fully “appreciate” it.
The story is based on Heinrich Hoffmann’s 1845 gruesome, illustrated tales, “Struwwelpeter,” which he wrote for his 3-year-old son as “moral instruction”. It was expanded, widely published, and gained popularity for years.
This story threads around a mother and father who wait for years for the stork - Bornstein’s huge, white bird - to descend on their home and drop them a bundle of joy. When it finally happens, they are so shocked by the baby’s grotesque looks and tendril fingers, (Bogart calls them squid tentacles), the anguished couple tosses the baby into the cellar, keeping it locked up for years. Occasionally, they’re reminded of their monstrous offspring by its crying and knocking on the floor, hoping to be released. Its overgrown fingernails protrude through the floor slats.
Dad drinks. Mom cries. Dad leaves. Conscience-riddled Mom grows tendril fingers. Both parents do. As time passes, we are regaled with tales of naughty children, committing what we consider minor infractions; but their fate is sinister, dark, and deadly. Every hideous, violence-tinged musical episode is followed by a family photo session.
Augustus won’t eat his soup. Cruel Frederick’s fate is worse than he can commit or conjure. Harriet likes to light matches and creates an incendiary experience for herself. Poor suck-a-thumb loses his fingers in song “Snip Snip”. Fidgety Phil learns to sit still the hard way. Another child who refuses to come in out of the rain soars far, far away. Bullies? They’re here, too.
Besides the SteamCRUNK renderings of gravelly voice-versatile music director, Walter Sickert, and the Army of Broken Toys, “Shockheaded Peter” is blessed with the immensely colorful talent of Alexandria King, our guide into this musical world of Victorian parent-child madness; Brooks Reeves, portraying the Father, Jade Guerra, the tormented mother, and an extraordinary ensemble of versatile musicians, singers, and actors.
Like I said, you gotta see it to believe it!
BOX INFO: One-act show, written by Julian Crouch and Phelim McDermott, music and lyrics by Martyn Jacques and The Tiger Lillies, presented by Company One, in collaboration with Suffolk University, appearing through April 4, at the Suffolk University Modern Theatre, 525 Washington St., Boston: March 27,28,at 8 p.m.; March 29, at 2 p.m., pay-what-you-can, $6 minimum, post show talk; March 25,26,April 1-3, at 7:30 p.m.; April 4, at 4,8 p.m. Tickets:$25-$38. Visit companyone.org or call 866-811-4111.