This Sunday I had the pleasure of seeing Company One’s production of SHOCKHEADED PETER, presented in part with Suffolk University at the Modern Theatre. SHOCKHEADED PETER originated in 1998 through collaboration between Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch of London’s Improbable Theatre, and a British “Brechtian Punk Cabaret” band called The Tiger Lillies. They sought to create a critique of Heinrich Hoffmann’s German children’s book, Struwwelpeter, published in 1845 as an instruction manual for young children learning to behave properly in society. While the original production was a huge success and has been reproduced by various companies, Company One and Suffolk University chose to collaborate with Walter Sickert and the Army of Broken Toys. While friends with The Tiger Lillies, the Army of Broken Toys is a very different band, with twice as many members, more instruments, and a different and specific aesthetic.
Company One’s version of SHOCKHEADED PETER took the bones of the original production, and fleshed them out in a new way. In a post performance discussion with Director Steven Bogart and Musical Director Walter Sickert facilitated by Company One dramaturg, Ilana M. Brownstein, I got the inside scoop on what made this iteration of SHOCKHEADED PETER unique.
SHOCKHEADED PETER is not the typical example of a play Company One might produce. They are known largely for producing new plays and while this one isn’t new per se, their version of it is. The first and biggest way it is new is the collaboration with Walter Sickert and the Army of Broken Toys. Music Director, Walter Sickert was already a fan of the original SHOCKHEADED PETER, and a friend of The Tiger Lilies, and as Dir. Bogart pointed out in an interview in the program, “it makes total sense to do this project with the Toys—is there any other group of musicians in town who could take this on?” and continues, “To do a production here and now, you want a band that has a similarly wholly unique aesthetic.” Inspired in part by Walter’s work as a visual artist, the Toys took the original score by The Tiger Lillies, and got to the essence of what each song was about. Through musical improvisation and exploration, they infused what already existed of SHOCKHEADED PETER’s musical life with their own flesh, blood, and aesthetic.
The next part of creating this “new” performance was layering in the physical and visual life onstage with an ensemble of actors and puppets. The original production used puppetry much more heavily than Company One’s. For Dir. Steven Bogart, this choice was intentional as he was more interested in seeing what the actors could do with their bodies onstage. This being said, the puppetry was not eliminated entirely and in fact played an important role. Bogart kept the puppetry for only the exact moments that needed it for heightened theatricality. It also was huge inspiration for the physical life of the actors who moved about as if being controlled by some unseen puppeteer. While all the dialogue came from the original script of a sparse twenty-three pages, the ensemble worked together through improvisation to create the physical stories accompanying each song. In this way, everyone involved had an equal voice in the process.
Finally, why re-imagine SHOCKHEADED PETER for today? Well, a huge reason for Bogart who has worked in the public school system for a number of years, is asking, “What are we all so afraid of?” The original Struwwelpeter sent a message to children about what they couldn’t do, censoring and frightening them. Bogart is interested in how we receive this message today:
“This is a wild piece that argues: we don’t want this. You’re killing us. You’re killing the child inside, our expression of life and creativity. It’s about the psychological violence we do to one another around censorship and oppression, and it captures this raw energy without spoonfeeding the message…”
So, not only is this a play about how we censor and restrict children today, but enlightens us to ask how we are perhaps allowing ourselves to be censored and to question our fears.
To conclude: SHOCKHEADED PETER, despite its dark content, was such a pleasure to watch. See it!
[Quotations and background information from SHOCKHEADED PETER Dramaturgical notes by Ramona Ostrowski and Ilana M. Brownstein]