Guest Blogger and Jobsite Artistic Director David M. Jenkins gives Caught in the Act a look inside the nightmares and belly laughs of Shockheaded Peter
A little bit Tim Burton, a little bit Edward Gorey, Shockheaded Peter is the phantasmagorical staging of Heinrich Hoffman’s 1845 pitch-black children’s book, Der Struwwelpeter. It’s a self-proclaimed “junk opera” that brings a dozen or so of the book’s stories to life through song and physical storytelling.
Each story was originally intended to serve as a cautionary tale to Hoffman’s children: little Conrad refuses to heed his parent’s pleas to not suck his thumbs only to have them lopped off by a sinister “Scissor Man.” Harriet plays with matches and goes up in flames. Augustus refuses to eat his dinner and wastes away until he vanishes. In this stage version, with original music by The Tiger Lillies and additional compositions provided by Jobsite’s resident composer Jeremy Douglass, these children come to untimely (and often hilarious) ends in a series of vignettes not only told through an on-stage three-piece band (Douglass, Elwood Bond and Mark Warren – all regional musicians known for both their bands and theater work) and singer (Spencer Meyers, previously seen in Hedwig and the Angry Inch) but also through a group of actors, dancers, aerialists and puppeteers.
Shockheaded Peter should be an extra-delicious delight for fans of Jobsite’s production of Gorey Stories, which we’ve performed twice in our mainstage season in the past decade. While Gorey Stories was visually told in nothing but blacks and whites, this show opens up the palate while keeping a lot of that Gorey vibe. The overall visual aesthetic hearkens to a Victorian gothic circus: expect bright colors, layers of mismatched patterns, and exaggerated heavy makeup. Oh, and puppets. Lots of puppets.
Regional favorite Paul J. Potenza leads audiences through the evening as the emcee, a macabre figure reminiscent of both Lon Chaney’s Phantom and Guns N’ Roses’ Slash. Meyers fronts the band as “The Son of a Sea Siren” with the “head of a man, voice of a mermaid, mind of an alligator, lungs of a wild bull elephant.” Douglass, Bond and Warren share traditional instruments like piano, bass and drums as well as unique ones like melodica, harmonium, glockenspiel, otamophone, pots, pans, junk and a bowed saw.
Jonathan Harrison and Amy E. Gray (which regional audiences may recall as Hannibal and Clarice in our production of SILENCE!) play the mother and father through all of the tales, also filling in as part of the ensemble. The ensemble is rounded out by Colleen Cherry, Katrina Stevenson and Kasondra Rose who do most of the puppeteering, dancing and physical storytelling – playing or otherwise operating most of the badly-behaved kids who come to gruesome ends. Stevenson and Rose will also take to aerial silks at various times through the performance, taking advantage of the Jaeb Theater’s height, capped off by a showstopping number “Flying Robert.”
When Shockheaded Peter premiered on the West End of London in 1998, it won the Olivier Award (their version of the Tony®) for “Best Entertainment” and that’s very apropos. The show is not exactly a musical, not nearly a play and it dabbles in just about everything you can do on a stage. What does that make it? Entertaining. Honestly, there’s really nothing else that compares to this show in my mind. The script itself is only 23 pages in length with hardly any actual dialogue and no incidental music — truly more of a rough outline than it is a blueprint. The creators have given companies who want to do the show a lot of free license, and we’re looking forward to our own twisted take on this spectacle. It’s going to be a visual and sonic thriller that will alternately show audiences the stuff of nightmares and elicit howling belly-laughs.