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A Trip Into the Dark Heart of Childhood

Death and puppets go together in the quirky hit 'Shockheaded Peter.'

May 07, 2000|KRISTIN HOHENADEL | Kristin Hohenadel is a regular contributor to Calendar

LONDON — Long before "Being John Malkovich" made puppetry chic, Michael Morris was trying to come up with a tagline for his show "Shockheaded Peter," a quirky piece of theater set in the style of a low-tech Victorian sideshow, with three actors, a bunch of ragged puppets and music by the cult band the Tiger Lillies. Inspired by the 19th century book of cautionary tales for naughty children, his self-titled "junk opera with live animation and big hair"--a nonsensical catch phrase that avoided the P-word--opened at West Yorkshire Playhouse in 1998. It was expected to fulfill a six-week British tour.

But by the time it made its way to London, the show had picked up a frenzied momentum, surprising everyone except, perhaps, the audience. Comparisons to "The Simpsons," Edward Gorey, Tim Burton and Roald Dahl began to crop up. Even the critics put down their poison pens to give it a double thumbs-up. The Evening Standard called it "wonderfully horrid . . . darkly funny, ravishingly inventive"; the Guardian called the show "very, very nasty, but oh so nice."

Since then, the show, which opens Thursday in Westwood, has traveled to Germany--where a German-language production is underway--and as far as Hong Kong and Australia. Last fall, the show won over New York.

Not every child knows the story of the boy with the sky-high spiked hair and the long-as-coat-hangers fingernails, who is said to have been the inspiration for Edward Scissorhands. "Struwwelpeter" was published in 1845 by German psychiatrist Dr. Heinrich Hoffman, who wrote it after he could not find a suitable picture-book for his young son. The book has since been translated into many languages--including a version by Mark Twain.

This is no ordinary children's book. In the pages of "Struwwelpeter," Conrad's thumb-sucking indiscretion is punished by cutting off the offending digits. Harriet plays with matches and burns to death in the process. Little Kaspar expires from failing to eat his soup.

Martyn Jacques of the Tiger Lillies adapted the book into lyrics, tightening the meter of the lines, altering some of the story points and--most important--upping the death count.

"It's like the Tiger Lillies--there's a lot of humor in it, but it's also quite nasty and black," says Jacques. " 'Shockheaded Peter' is already pretty black, and some of them die anyway. It seemed to be a funny idea to have a lot of death in it."

In Jacques' version, when Conrad's thumbs are snipped off, he bleeds to death. Fidgety Phil doesn't just fall out of his chair at the dinner table, the knives and forks kill him. And in the "Story of the Man That Went Out Shooting," says Jacques, "there's a massacre in my version, whereas in the original I think he just falls down a well."

Turning all this macabre blood and death into a piece of theater was another challenge. Morris hired director Phelim McDermott and designer Julian Crouch, a London-based team that often switches and shares roles in the process of collaboration. The team has since joined with Lee Simpson to form Improbable Theatre. And on a recent afternoon in a rehearsal room in the East End neighborhood of Bethnal Green, they invited a reporter to early rehearsals for their upcoming show, "Spirit," about what survives even in conflicts such as war.

A half-dozen people sit in folding chairs and cross-legged on the floor. On a wooden approximation of a hillside in front of them, tilted at a 45-degree angle with a trapdoor, McDermott, 36, wears a mask that dwarfs his modestly proportioned body.

"What keeps your boots where they are?" asks another man, standing beside him. "The hill," the masked man answers.

The group begins to roar. Stepping into this scene feels like stumbling into the middle of a foreign film without any subtitles. You sense the mood, but you can't quite catch the plot.

"We kind of follow our instincts, and we try not to question too much," says Crouch, 37, after the rehearsal. "It's an instinctive process, not an intellectual process. A lot of what works in the show came from accidents. "

To get that process going, Crouch says, "we'll try almost anything."

Today, it's a giant head mask. "You put a mask on someone, and in a sense you're fooling that person out of their own heads into someone else," Crouch says, "trying to get your work from a deeper place. "

Crouch and McDermott admit it wasn't easy to get the ball rolling on "Shockheaded Peter." They were used to developing their material from scratch and were puzzled by how to take the Tiger Lillies songs and build a show around them. They anguished over hiring professional puppeteers to illustrate the songs, since their work with puppets was self-taught.

Eventually, they did what they always had done. They assembled a few kindred spirits--in this case, actors Tamzin Griffin, Julian Bleach and Anthony Cairns--and began to play around with the material.

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