The most wonderful theater you could wish to see in New York-or anywhere-happens to be a children’s show. Wait! Please don’t leave me quite so soon. The best fairy tales have always been for adults, too, and Shockheaded Peter: A Junk Opera at the New Victory Theater fills me with joy.
In its marvelously inventive playful essentials, it is everything we love about theater, everything it should be in its imaginative right mind. If you have children, or if you don’t, you must see Shockheaded Peter . In its delightfully ghoulish way, the show is irresistible on many different levels, including its reveling in creating theater itself.
But, hurry! You have until Oct. 31 to catch it-unless, as I so much hope, this British import from the best of London’s fringe can be persuaded to return soon.
“Sometimes we have to be cruel to be kind,” Shockheaded Peter ‘s spectral host, its thespian wreck played brilliantly by Julian Bleach, informs us with Grand Guignol relish. “And sometimes we have to be cruel for recreational purposes …”
The show thus takes a certain pleasure in pain-in spooky make-believe, Victorian melodrama, freak sideshows, period pop-up books, spoof children’s fables and mercifully unpious morality tales. It is grotesque and silly, cruel and naïve, not camp, but sinister, funny, anything but cute and sugary.
Inspired by Heinrich Hoffmann’s gleefully malevolent caricatures of 19th-century children’s tales, Shockheaded Peter might remind you of the twisted pleasures of Tim Burton. But its creative heart can only be found in the celebratory uniqueness of theater.
Its design, for one thing, is extraordinary. It is like looking at a Victorian toy theater crossed with a miniature house of horrors. “Home sweet home,” as our ghoulish narrator puts it darkly. The immensely gifted designers, Julian Crouch and Graeme Gilmour, play with perspectives, for humans dwarf the set, and puppets look sinisterly human. Behind that velvet curtain, behind those doors as inviting as forbidden territory, underneath the floorboards, everywhere, are to be found uncontrollable fears, wild imaginings. A child is born! But the baby is so hideous-the little monster-that its affluent parents bury poor Shockheaded Peter under the floorboards of their cozy sitting room.
Anything to me is sweeter
than Shockheaded Peter .
So goes the eerie song sung by a self-described “castrato-crooner,” Martyn Jacques. He’s another brilliantly original member of the troupe, the accordionist-composer of the show and its weirdly hypnotic falsetto balladeer. Mr. Jacques is also the founder of the trio known as the Tiger Lillies, who appear throughout the action like deadpan wandering minstrels from another planet. In that astonishing sense, Shockheaded Peter is the most unusual new musical in town (and therefore the most welcome).
I saw a noon performance of the show with an audience of schoolchildren, and if the performers can silence that lot, believe me, they must be doing something right. It is the most testing audience of all, for the child who’s bored or patronized or can’t follow the story will quickly let you know. It’s why Peter Brook has always taken his Shakespeare productions into schools during rehearsals. He believes, unsentimentally, that at the basic level of storytelling, children are the most helpful, lethal critics.
So the troupe’s magical storytelling compelled the attention of the school kids (in spite of a couple of narrative dips). But our snarling host and narrator, who knows a thing or two about the give-and-take of English pantomime, is never satisfied. “This is absolutely meaningless to you, isn’t it?” he moans, admonishing us later with: “You try something a little different. And what do you get? Ridicule!”
Not here; not anywhere. Directed by Phelim McDermott and Mr. Crouch, the show was created by its five performers. The avant-garde meets traditional theater. It amounts to a fascinating new-wave synthesis of design, fantastic puppet and mask work, music (all the cast play instruments), mime, song and narrative vignettes-all in the name of stories well told. They could not be told better-spontaneously, on the wing, as if improvised.
They have none of Julie Taymor’s studied earnestness. The Shockheaded Peter style is wittily and essentially artless, which is why I admire the piece so much. It is, if you will, an “artless art.” It appears to be utterly natural, never arty. Its charm resides in its apparent unseriousness. Its secret is in its undisguised, transforming naïveté.
The sets are cardboard, the stage a picture book. A girl plays with matches and is set on fire. Her taffeta dress is turned inside out to consume her, screaming-“Till there’s nothing left to lose/ Except her little scarlet shoes”-as a smug black cat watches.
A boy who wouldn’t stop sucking his thumbs has them cut off by the Scissor Man! Played by a puppet, this sad child-puppet of the merciless bleeds pretty red ribbons, dying in pools of blood. Others descend on strings. But if one string is cut, they hang.
Simple stuff, eh? As our evil master of ceremonies puts at the story’s end when Shockheaded Peter has been reborn as a devouring monster-child: “What’s under your floorboards?”
A lot. In their case, a beautifully original show.