Chicago Theater Review: SHOCKHEADED PETER (Black Button Eyes Productions)

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by Lawrence Bommer on August 13, 2017

in Theater-Chicago


We learn from fear, even if it’s the wrong lessons. Well before Mark Twain’s “Slovenly Peter,” let alone Edward Gorey, Roald Dahl or Tim Burton, there was Heinrich Hoffmann. Written in 1845, his sardonic masterpiece Der Struwwelpeter was a children’s book meant to scare little readers into good deeds—or at least into phobias about bad behavior.

Employing unsubtle illustrations of naughty kids who get just what they deserve, Hoffmann’s literary terrorism dismissed any concept of innocence. It all but invented the Bogeyman “beneath the floorboards.” Fueled by the fury of the Scissorman or Tailor (the prototype for Edward Scizzorhands and Wolverine), the frightfest indulged in instant punishment for transgressive, sometimes racist, infants. You reap what you sow–no appeal to a mercy you forfeited the moment you did the deed.

Even more extreme (all the children die here), the 1998 British musical Shockheaded Peter (created by Julian Crouch and Phelim McDermott with music by the Tiger Lilies) proves even nastier than its source. Now playing Chicago’s Athenaeum Theatre, Black Button Eyes Productions’ waking nightmare boils Hoffmann’s ten terrifying tales into a witch’s brew of Grand Guignol theatrics. Delivering putative archetypes for pediatric mental disorders, these 66 minutes are replete with pantomime caricatures of cruelty (“for recreational purposes”), skeletal masks, and puppetry (by Jeremiah Barr), both rod and solid. Billed as silly and sinister, Ed Rutherford’s staging revels in bad karma, contagious trauma, and histrionic overkill. A cast of twelve act out the edifying fates of temperamental tykes and malicious moppets.

Holding the horrors together is the sad saga of a once-sterile couple (Cody Jolly and Stephanie Stockstill) who are brought an offspring by the meanest stork ever. Narrating their showdown with Schadenfreude, Kevin Webb is the haplessly malevolent emcee from hell, a ham horror and strident, snarling shreaker of the Richard III persuasion.

As we await the parents’ night of reckoning with the spawn of Satan, T.J. Anderson’s wizard musical direction weaves together the sartorial doom inflicted on the title character for his unkempt wardrobe, the anorexic demise of a spoiled brat who refused his soup, and the instant amputation by the snip-snip surgeon of a thumb sucker’s offending digit. Other mischievous menaces include a little boy who endures a canine catastrophe for torturing a kitty, a little match girl whose combustion is far from spontaneous, and a vengeful hare who stalks and slaughters a deserving hunter.

You don’t want to know what happens to Fidgety Philip, perforated by utensils for dumping his food on the floor. Or to Johnny Head-in-Air, a distracted walker whose literal downfall occurs centuries before handheld devices could continue his comeuppance (actually, “falldownance”). We also encounter a pickled man known as the Human Gerkin, as well as a Weeping Woman who leads us into the Maze of Mayhem. The final scaremongering involves a runaway umbrella and the howling youngster who heedlessly took it into a storm.

The tango-style songs combine with cunning storylines to yield a dreadful harvest of gallows humor. 172 years later, it’s still dismaying how one man’s bitterly sincere scare tactics have now congealed into self-mockery and toothless terrors. But the inclusion of a certain orange wig into these fearsome festivities shows that the Bogeyman is far from an anachronistic abstraction. The jokes remain on us.

photos by Cole Simon

Shockheaded Peter
Black Button Eyes Productions
recommended for ages 13+
The Athenaeum Theatre (Studio 2), 2936 N. Southport Ave.
Thurs-Sat at 7:30; Sun at 2
ends on September 16, 2017
for tickets, call 773.935.6875 or visit Athenaeum

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