Tuesday, May 30, 2017

“Shockheaded Peter” is not everyone’s cup of tea.

I think every child has been exposed to children’s fairy tales or nursery rhymes at some point in their developmental years. Some are cute. Some teach lessons but they are obscure. “Humpty Dumpty” had a great fall and all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put him together again.

Or “Jack and Jill” who went up the hill to fetch a pail of water and Jack fell down and ‘broke his crown’. “The Muffin Man”, “Little Jack Horner”, “Yankee Doodle”, “Old Mother Hubbard”, “Three Blind Mice”, “London Bridges” and the list goes on. They all sound harmless, but if you check it out there is a back-story to each.

Now let’s consider Heinrich Hoffmann’s 1845  “Struwwelpeter” or “Shockheaded Peter”. It’s a music box spin on naughty children and misguided parents.  These wicked and macabre little tales are not quite as subtle as those mentioned above. According to program notes “Hoffmann wrote and illustrated these verses for the moral instruction of his three-year-old son, Carl.

Children at that time were expected to obey their elders no matter how deceitful and brutal adults were.” And to top it all off, they were read as bedtime stories, gruesome and disturbing as they were. 

Described as “A vile and repulsive story told by reprehensible characters in a thoroughly degenerate fashion. Absolute Bliss.” (David Bowie). To some it’s deliciously wicked. To this I must add one person’s bliss is another’s misery.

Cygnet Theatre in Old Town is currently mounting “Shockheaded Peter” created for the stage by Julian Crough and Phelim McDermott with original music by The Tiger Lillies based on Hoffmann’s  “Struwwelpeter”. It will be playing through June 18th.

Emcee Sarah Errington
Upon entering the theatre and before the curtain is pulled back we are taken into what looks like a circus playground. Soon after we are introduced to Peter? mistress/master of ceremonies (Sarah Erringron). “The mind is full of monsters…behind this this very crimson curtain stand portalsto the darkest recesses of the human imagination within which waits such monsters as your wildest nightmares could anticipate.” I should have been duly warned.

Emcee: “Sometimes we have to be cruel, in order to be kind and sometimes we have to be cruel, well, you know, just for recreational purposes.”

Siren (Steve Gouveia) plays about five different instruments and sings the ballads that are followed by the stories. His annoyingly strained and piercing falsetto voice was the final touch in the series of cabaret acts in what this reviewer might say, wanted to drive her to the exits. Gouveia, (a talent’ in his own right, he was in the original Broadway show of “Jersey Boys”) is dressed to the nines in tutu, high heels laced up to the knees, clown wig with lipstick…oh well. ‘Nuff said about that.

Steve Gouveia as Siren

The Emcee makes her appearance and then we start up with a new episode in Father’s (Adrian Alta) and Mother’s (Kevane La’Marr Coleman) bizarre life with their Shockheaded baby boy, who was a big disappointment to them when they looked into that baby blanket for the first time and were horrified at what they found. Their story goes from bad to worse and gets bogged down with all the other ghoulish madness going on on stage.

Forgive me if I’m not impressed with Cygnet’s choice of this outlandish spectacle. I may be in the minority but watching children starve because they refuse to eat, (“He’s like a little bit of a thread, And on the fifth day he was dead.”) or have their hands cut off because they suck their thumbs is hardly wicked fun.

Forgive me as well if my sense of dark humor refused to find a starting point at which I could find the energy to laugh, smirk or even smile. Don’t misunderstand, I like a good laugh and I often find that humor can be unearthed in most everything. But not so much here.

To their credit, and to director to Rob Lutfy and set designers Sean Fanning and Jungah Han and choreographer Michael Mizerany, Peter Herman’s wigs, Chris Rhynne’s lighting Matt Lescaul-Wood’s sound, musicians Mark Danisovsky, Nathan Hubbard and Patrick Marian, and especially Shirley Pierson’s wonderful costumes and excellent and original puppets, and aside from the weird and grisly spectacle on stage, the technical support deserves kudos. 

I would be remiss if I failed to acknowledge Danielle Airey (part of the large ensemble) in a masterful aerial performance a la Cirque style as she winds through a series of ribbon tapes suspended from the rafters and masterfully goes through her dance. It is beautiful. Brava!

Sarah Errington and Danielle Airey
See you at the theatre.


Dates: Through June 18th
Organization: Cygnet Theatre
Phone: 619.337.1525
Production Type: Musical
Where: 4040 Twiggs Street, San Diego, CA 92110
Ticket Prices: Start at $42.00
Web: cygnettheatre.org
Venue: Theatre in Old Town

Photo: Daren Scott

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