Shockheaded theater

Sep 5, 2001 at 12:00 am

(Editor's note: On September 11, Metro Times received notice that the University Musical Society has canceled all performances of "Shockheaded Peter." Please contact UMS for further information.)

The performance begins
with a hideous grin
three faces wide
tiny hands on each side

telling tales of naughty children
who stray and misbehave, such as
Fredrick, Harriet, and Peter
with the shocked-head
they always manage
to wind up

See the long-legged scissor man (face like a white cliff, his pointy-sharp eyebrows two massive, inverted widow’s peaks) scuttle after little “Suck-a-Thumb” like some contorted Maxfield Parrish illustration, as the accordionist-narrator croons a wicked tale in an unnatural, high-pitched, accusatory song.

How refreshing, in a day and age when kids seem to get away with murder, to go back to a time when good old-fashioned terror was the favored teaching tool. Come visit Shockheaded Peter (A Junk Opera) and forget about your complex psychological world of “but why did they do it?” and go back to an “eye for an eye” or worse.

Based on Dr. Heinrich Hoffmann’s Der Struwwelpeter, written in 1845, this twisted Victorian cabaret is a collaboration between director Michael Morris, the theatrical team of Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch (co-founders of London, England’s, Improbable Theatre) and London’s musical cult heroes, the Tiger Lillies. A physician at a Frankfurt lunatic asylum, Hoffmann went looking for a gift for his 3-year-old and was disgusted at the state of children’s picture books. He decided to take matters into his own pen and blank notebook for his son, and also found that access to a pen and paper worked as a pacifying distraction for his occasional ill-humored tiny patient. In Hoffmann’s own words, “A story, invented on the spur of the moment, illustrated with a few touches of the pencil and humorously related, will calm the little antagonist, dry his tears and allow the medical man to do his duty.”

Creator-producer Morris remembered reading Shockheaded Peter as a child, so when he saw the Tiger Lillies in a Waterloo dive, he approached accordion headman Martyn Jacques with a “shockheaded” proposition. The result: a misshapen oddity-opera of cruelty completely devoid of sympathy and remorse (due to death), but leaving plenty of room for stolen laughter at others’ incredibly absurd misfortunes.

On a stage designed as a framed toy theater, puppetry, Victorian-tinged children’s-book costumes, heightened theatrics and grotesque high-contrast makeup create a carnival-nightmare equivalent to Hans Bellmer meets Mr. Punch meets Dr. Caligari for accordion lessons inside a Joseph Cornell box, and the lesson doesn’t go well. But once you pass over the threshold of the absurd, all that intensity takes on a new light, and transmogrifies into a tragicomedy to be loved by all.

This is cruel Frederick, see!
A horrid wicked boy was he;
He caught the flies, the poor little things,
And tore off all their tiny wings,
He threw the kittens down the stairs,
He broke all the chairs;
And Oh! far worse than all beside,
He beat his Mary, till she cried.

Jacques sings and narrates Hoffmann’s nasty little rhymes underneath clown powder, makeup and a bowler hat in his classic German cabaret style, haunting and comical, creating anticipation and suspense as if he’s a kids’-show host gone over the edge, and the only thing that could accompany him properly is the romantic mutability of an accordion.

From the Kronos Quartet’s rehearsal space in San Francisco, Jacques speaks about how his music was shaped: “I lived in Soho in London for a long time. It’s influenced my (song) writing, in subject matter ... songs about the darker sides of life ... songs about the unfortunate people.”

He’s also been heavily influenced by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s A Three Penny Opera, Jacques Brel, Edith Piaf, klezmer music and gypsy music. Throw in the “slow attack” of the accordion and its soft-to-harsh versatile drama mirroring and complementing Jacques’ intense falsetto — throw it into a Victorian box of instant karma for kids so absurdly violent and taking punishment to such extremes that you just have to laugh.

“I took the original book and pushed it even further in that direction,” explains Jacques.

Aside from “The Story of the Inky Boys,” which changed completely from a lesson about racism into a story about domineering “Bully Boys” and their reckless end, most of the stories are relatively intact. “Except that more people die,” says Jacques, who took liberties with a few of the milder endings (as with “The Story of the Man That Went Out Shooting,” in lieu of the original ending in which a baby rabbit burns his nose). “Everybody dies in it ... death, there’s a lot more death. It’s just pushing it further. It does actually make it more funny, really. When something’s really quite over-the-top already, and if you push it a bit further, it makes it more comical, almost ridiculous, the whole thing.”

And just to make sure, Jacques’ vocal intonations and facial gestures take you all the way to the very peaks and depths of exaggeration, from cooing over a favorite pet to the shrieks and screams of a man possessed. Jacques is currently working on a recording with that rebel chamber ensemble, the Kronos Quartet, putting music to the unpublished final writings of the gruesome tale-spinner Edward Gorey. The plan is to create a theatrical production with the help of Terry Gilliam that will come out sometime next year entitled The Gorey End, and continue riding on the same successful vein as Shockheaded Peter.

With the show’s continued success, selling out runs in Europe and in the States, there seems to be a need for black humor in the nursery. Like a child wanting the same storybook read over and over again, not believing the absurd and merciless outcomes, but screaming with delight nonetheless, you’ll want to ingest every ill moment of it.

Not recommended for children under 9.

Shockheaded Peter (A Junk Opera)
featuring the Tiger Lillies
Sept. 12-14, 8 p.m.
Sept. 15, 7 p.m. and midnight
Michigan Theater
603 E. Liberty St., Ann Arbor
Call 734-764-2538 for tickets.

Anita Schmaltz writes about theater and performance for Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected]