San Diego Theater Review: SHOCKHEADED PETER (Cygnet Theatre Company)

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by Milo Shapiro on June 3, 2017

in Theater-Los Angeles,Theater-Regional


In 1845, German psychiatrist Heinrich Hoffmann wrote a disturbing but popular children’s book featuring the perils of children who misbehave. A century and a half later, in 1998, the popular book was adapted for the stage by Improbable, a London theater company, and The Tiger Lillies, a cult British musical trio; together, they brought the stories of Hoffmann’s Struwwelpeter to life—and his characters to death. This visually intense show is as dark as theater gets.

It is easier to enjoy Cygnet’s San Diego premiere of this deeply macabre musical twist knowing beforehand that multiple plots are woven throughout with little connection among them. The most central plot is the tale of a high-society couple who receive a baby from the stork, only to discover that it is hideous with frizzy, woolen red hair and Wolverine-like fingernails. In horror, they lock Peter under the floorboards to live out his life hidden from view. No explanation is given as to how or why we bounce between this story and the others; the sooner one accepts this premise, the more enjoyable the nightmarish spectacle is.

The ghoulishly delightful costuming (Shirley Pierson) and make-up (Peter Herman) would be the envy of any Halloweener, especially in the ghastly treatment of Siren, a cross between Bozo the Clown and Chucky the killer doll. He is the stuff of nightmares, heightened by Steve Gouveia’s haunting voice, cruelly pleasurable in some songs, and soulful in others; as physically captivating as the circus acrobat Danielle Airey was throughout the exquisite “Flying Robert,” it is Gouveia’s lamenting warble, under the musical direction of Patrick Marion, that lingers in the mind.

Director Rob Lufty ably incorporates Pierson’s gift for unusual puppetry (at one point even the set becomes a puppet) and Michael Mizerany’s playful-yet-purposeful choreography to build a spellbinding and other-worldly exhibition of darkness. The clever but somber result is a mix of lighter fare horror movies (The Nightmare Before Christmas, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Dark Shadows, Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events) and fiendish characters (the clown in Stephen King’s It, the fiendish Alex in A Clockwork Orange)—perhaps throw in a bad acid trip to complete the picture.

The cruel blackness is truly not for everyone, but mature adolescents and adults willing to revel in the dungeon of our cruelest humors for 90 minutes will find Shockheaded Peter an excellent place to do so.

photos by Daren Scott and Sean Fanning

Shockheaded Peter
Cygnet Theatre Company
Old Town Theater, 4040 Twiggs St.
Wed & Thurs at 7:30; Fri at 8; Sat at 3 & 8; Sun at 2 & 7
ends on June 18, 2017
for tickets, call 619-337-1525 or visit Cygnet

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