Shockheaded Peter. What a name. What a world I entered into for an hour and a half. Company One’s production of Shockheaded Peter is a steamCRUNK musical that uses a Victorian era manners book, Struwwelpeter, for children as a jumping off point to explore what it means to care for and cultivate a child’s imagination. The Boston-based band, Walter Sickert and the Army of Broken Toys adapted the music and performed live onstage.The main story followed two parents who receive a rather undesirable child from the stork and proceed to lock him up. Slowly these parents begin to turn shock headed themselves. Musical stories are peppered in between, each telling the story of a boy or girl who has been very, very naughty and the fate that befalls them (spoiler: death.)
I’ve seen two shows this week that use old tales in a new setting and love how translatable they are to the stage. There is a power in using a simple old tale, or a pre made structure and putting it up against society today. The connections about what has changed and what hasn’t really start to pop. In Shockheaded Peter, we strongly see that, yes these children may be fooling about, but the way the parents treat them or the way that they are to be ‘punished’ for their wrongdoings is really what is shocking. A child whose head is in the clouds should be cultivated and helped to realize their daydreams, not scolding telling them they will drown in a river should they not learn to focus. I feel there is still such a need to talk up to children and allow them to find their way into this world where they can excel at whatever they excel at, not be forced into boxes. Shockheaded Peter is a weird wonderful homage to that.
There was such glorious theatricality present so I was surprised when I found myself wishing for more. There is an MC who guides us through the show and the actress clearly knew what she was doing and had a strong command of the stage. However I felt so much dead space between these brightly colored episodes. Each drop between scenes made me work harder to get back into it the next time around. It goes to show you how integral transitions and exposition are to the momentum of the story. They must all be in service of a plot. For a show with an amazing, unique band, I had hoped the production would utilize the live music to fill and underscore scenes that wen’t musical numbers. Towards the end as the climax loomed, the music picked up and cast an eerie tone over everything and I was so relieved. I wished that energy had carried throughout. The Army of Broken Toys is such a delight to witness on stage and wished they would have been weaving their whimsy throughout.
An element of Shockheaded Peter that I see so little of on the stage were puppets. In the original production puppets played and even bigger role, where many of the children were puppets. Company One decided to have the ensemble play a larger role but kept the puppets for more theatrical story telling, such as a boy who flies up into the sky on his umbrella. It was refreshing to see such care going into the puppetry. These wacky dolls came to life and were always breathing and alive from the first moments they appear onstage. The work that both parents did when Shockheaded Peter appeared in their home had me captivated. It’s exciting to see such a mash-up of storytelling techniques on stage, song, acting, puppets, tableau, it gives the play an almost fairytale like quality, where anything can happen.
What I love every time I go to a Company One show, pay-what-you-can sunday’s in particular, is the audience. Shockheaded Peter was no exception. You are in an audience of real people, not of theatre goers going for the sake of seeing a show. These people are here to see this show. I was in line for tickets behind two steamCRUNK music fanatics, I sat next to a family with an elementary school son, there were a group of young friends who after the show said, “thank you so much for bringing me, you’re right, this was exactly up my alley.” You can feel the community of people who come from many different backgrounds and have many different passions come together to see this story being told. It’s a heartwarming thing and gives me hope for the live theatre.