Strumply Peter recreates the madcap imagination of childhood

Strumply Peter's frighteningly fun
Mark Vancleave

Michael Sommers is a theatrical mad scientist. There is no other way to describe it.

In his laboratory at Open Eye Figure Theatre, he — along with a team of like-minded souls — creates work unlike any you will see on other Twin Cities' stages. That's certainly clear in Strumply Peter, a "toy opera" that plays through this weekend.

Taking the whimsical, if somewhat scolding, poems and illustrations of 19th-century German writer Heinrich Hoffmann as inspiration, Sommers and company have created a delightful work in which disobedient children face frightful punishment, doled out by the title character, who resembles Freddy Krueger by way of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

Like Krueger, Strumply Peter works in your dreams. Instead of razor blades, his fingers end in nails that have never been cut or cleaned. His hair is a rat's nest and the boy never wants to wash. Brought to life by Noah Sommers Haas (the son of Sommers and Open Eye's co-leader, Susan Haas), Strumply Peter arrives via a trap door in the stage, ready to find the spirits of children who don't obey.

And what happens to them? Well, Peter and his assistants — Crybaby (Tara Loeper, her eyes goggling out of her head with tears) and Messy Mary (Liz Schachterle, who relishes every opportunity to be disgusting) — take their essences and bake them into a cake. That'll teach them to obey their mothers and go to bed.

While the cake is baking, Peter recounts a few other instances of badly behaved children. Some of these are drawn directly from Hoffmann's tales, like a boy who chooses not to eat his soup anymore, and quickly withers away into noodle-like arms and legs before disappearing completely. Then there is poor Robert, who loves to play in the rain, until one day the wind catches his red umbrella and tosses him high into the sky.

But children aren't the only ones punished. Watching over all of this is the Lamenting Mother (Keith Lester), who is there to stop any and all fun had by the children. By the end, Lamenting Mother's mouth — which is always saying "no" — has been locked away by the mischievous Peter.

This is where the vision of Sommers and co-writer Josef Evans differs from Hoffmann's original. While Hoffmann wrote cautionary tales with the message that kids should behave better, here we have tales that stress how important it is for young people to be wild and crazy, no matter how much it affects the sanity of the parents.

Remixing classics isn't unexplored territory for Sommers and Evans; the pair teamed up together for last year's To the Moon, which played with pieces of The Honeymooners. But what is special about Strumply Peter is its almost infectious joy, which spreads from the quartet of players and into the music of the three-piece orchestra. The slightly off-kilter score comes courtesy of Eric Jensen, who leads on piano. He is aided by Laura Abend on trumpet and Susan Haas on trombone.

The mixture of performances, puppetry, music, and visuals makes Strumply Peter a signature midwinter joy that will have you wishing you could let go, just for a few moments, and be as wild as a kid again.

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