This week I saw Company One’s production of Shockheaded Peter at the Modern Theatre, and I can safely say it is entirely like anything else I’ve seen before
One of the production’s primary tools is a celebration of the dark and grotesque. The company members perform vignettes that intersect the title story line. These include a story about a boy who starves to death after refusing to eat his soup, a boy whose thumbs are cut off by a monster because he refuses to stop sucking them, a child who cannot stop fidgeting at the dinner table and therefore dies as a result of impaling himself on the cutlery, and a little girl who plays with matches despite forewarning, and burns herself up. These stories are depicted with irreverance and overall glee by the musicians and company members. The song about the little girl, “The Dreadful Story About Harriet and the Matches,” is sung by three incredibly sassy cats (complete with huge mask heads), who loll about while describing that Harriet will burn to death.
The play’s music is originally by the punk-cabaret band The Tiger Lillies, and is performed in this iteration by Boston “SteamCRUNK” band Walter Sickert & the ARmy of BRoken TOys. The Toys’ aesthetic seems to have greatly influenced this celebration of the grotesque. Though the original music and lyrics are certainly very twisted, the falsetto and cartoonish inflection of the vocalist adds a great deal of whimsy. Walter Sickert and the Broken Toys’ take, on the other hand, tends to include more of a heavy punk aesthetic. For example, at the end of “The Story of the Man Who Went out Shooting” and “Snip Snip,” the word “dead” or “death” is repeated several times. In The Tiger Lillies’ version, it is repeated only 2-5 times, and in the high falsetto tone. Sickert and the band, however, chanted “Dead! Dead! Dead!” in a low, guttural pitch while smashing their instruments and stomping slowly towards the crowd. Some moments of the songs felt like pseudo-Satanic rituals. But all of this is done with robust expressions of glee on the ensemble and band’s faces.
When I reflect back on my experience of watching the play, I am surprised by how uncomfortable it made me feel. Now, the blood was simulated, the violence was stylized and mimed, and puppets, masks, and theatrical lighting all helped create an environment of “this-is-theatre-it-is-magical-not-real.” So why did it provoke such a strong reaction of discomfort in me?
I suppose it was those expressions of joy on the company members’ faces. Their celebration of the moments that seemed so naturally “wrong” and twisted was unsettling. Though the ensemble looked like they were clearly having a ball up there, no part of me wanted to celebrate with them.
Director Stephen Bogart describes in the program notes that this kind discomfort, which motivates us to shield younger people and children from an exploration of darker themes, is a huge part of why he believes the piece to be important today.
And indeed, it is a common part of youth culture to celebrate the humorous staging of violence and death. One of the first examples that comes to my mind is The Book of Bunny Suicides, which was most popular among members of my generation when we were around ages 12 – 15. We’re taught as we grow up that suicide is no laughing matter, but this book rejects that altogether. Everyone in my age group loved it.
Other celebrations of dark themes, such as Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas and Edward Scissorhands, are absolute cult favorites among the pre-teen and teenage generations.
Ilana Brownstein comments in the program notes that Shockheaded Peter seems to be very much within director Stephen Bogart’s aesthetic. And truly, several years ago I saw another of his works in which young people delved into a much darker side of their imaginations than is generally socially customary. He directed a musical adaptation of Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea with Amanda Palmer (of Dresden Dolls fame) with a cast of acting students from Lexington High School, where he taught drama. The album’s lyrics deals with the Holocaust, violence, and plenty of sex. This meant the students sang lyrics such as “I know they buried her body with others, her sister and mother, and five-hundred families” and also, “Her father made fetuses with flesh-licking ladies.” The production was absolutely beautiful and moving, but I could see how some may have been surprised about the choice of content when dealing with high school students.
I do agree with Bogart – that to censor young minds from a full and entire range of human experiences is not productive or helpful to their artistic (and personal) developments. Though it may make some uncomfortable to see teens or young people exploring the darker, more morbid parts of humanity – especially when they are delighting in them! – it is a truly valuable exercise. So though Shockheaded Peter might have made me squirm, I will not be one to discount it. The aesthetic just isn’t quite to my taste (I was never much of a Skellington or Bunny Suicide fan, myself).