The ghastliest, most inspired moment in Shockheaded Peter--which overflows with ghastly, inspired moments--is also its sparest. A drummer, a bass player, and an accordionist step out onto the stage dressed in frayed Victorian clothes and kabuki-inspired makeup. As they play, the accordionist sings in an operatic, funereal falsetto, telling the story of a boy that mistakenly opened his umbrella on a gusty day:
So up he goes, the silly fella,
Up he goes, into the skies,
No one hears his screams and cries.
"It's such a simple, beautiful ballad," the singer, Martyn Jacques, explains. "If you'd had actors or puppets behind it, it would have detracted from the song."
Jacques wrote all of the songs for the play, adapting them from Dr. Heinrich Hoffmann's notorious 1844 children's book Struwwelpeter. A gruesome parody of the obsessively moralizing children's literature of the era, Hoffmann's book tells of beastly children and their horrific fates. The book's child-mortality rate would not be equaled until Edward Gorey wrote The Gashlycrumb Tinies more than a hundred years later. Hoffmann's tykes burn to death after playing with matches, starve after refusing to eat their soup, and lose their thumbs to tailor's shears after ignoring their parents' advice not to suck on the offending digits. Each of these sinister fables springs to life via melodramatic actors and ingenious puppets on Shockheaded Peter's gorgeous stage--a meticulously designed variation of the Victorian era's "tuppence-colored" toy theaters.
If Hoffmann's book is the literary source of the play, Jacques's music is its muse--bent cabaret compositions for bohemians who swig absinthe rather than red wine. Jacques and his band, the Tiger Lillies, almost never leave the stage; if they are gone for a moment, a cast member will reach down into a trap door on the floor and drag Jacques back onstage by his ponytail to play another number. "Originally all the scenes were written with just us playing music and 'something happens' going on in the background," Jacques says. "It was pretty much improvised."
Shockheaded Peter originated with producer Michael Morris of London's Cultural Industries (an eclectic independent production company), who began work on the project by soliciting a score from the Tiger Lillies (a band largely unknown outside England, although Jacques explains that they have a "cult following in Prague.") Jacques loved Hoffmann's book, which he describes as "very Tiger Lillyish. These were the words and the sorts of lyrics that I would sing." Indeed, the pairing of Jacques and Hoffmann seems somehow inevitable; the Tiger Lillies first U.S. release, The Brothel to the Cemetery, contains morbidly funny odes to the crucified Jesus ("Banging in the Nails") and the ravages of age ("Decline").
Equally inspired was the addition of director Phelim McDermott and designer Julian Crouch to the production. The pair is famous for constructing wickedly humorous epic plays out of bric-a-brac that they seemingly scavenge from dumpsters (they call Shockheaded Peter a "Junk Opera"), and they provided the "something happens" that occurs onstage as the Tiger Lillies play. Their terrific, preposterous take on Hoffmann's stories includes massive, anatomically correct baby costumes and puppets that bleed realistically. "We've made a freak of theater," McDermott explained in an interview with London's The Guardian newspaper. As a result, the play comes with a warning that it is not meant for younger audiences, and has drawn some sharp criticism. Donald Lyons of the New York Post stormed out of the Manhattan production, mortified. "It's so in love with its own superior irony," he complained.
"It's the only bad review we've gotten," Jacques says in response. "I had to ask myself, 'Did he come to the right show?' I mean, it's all meant in fun, isn't it?"