By Jane Recker
There aren’t many shows for which decapitated and mutilated doll heads would serve as appropriate lobby decorations; Shockheaded Peter happens to be one of them.
Based on the German folk tales of the same name (Struwwelpeter), this macabre carnival presented by Black Button Eyes Productions is true eye candy: pleasing to the eye but ultimately lacking substance and purpose.
The musical is comprised of a series of tableaus illustrating the gruesome demises of misbehaving children, each death a direct consequence to their transgressions. A girl who plays with matches burns to death, a boy who won’t stop fidgeting accidentally impales himself, etc. The dark production choice is in line with Black Button Eyes’ history and mission of making “magic invade reality.”
While this may sound far too grisly and depressing for the average musical-goer, the atmosphere is actually quite playful; think American Horror Story: Freak Show meets Cabaret. This is achieved through the juxtaposition between the music and the design. The score, created by British rock band The Tiger Lillies, hearkens back to the show’s German roots – an accordion, virtuosically played by Pavi Proczko, fills out the standard 3-piece band and provides a charming yet foreboding oom-pah-pah that resembles the Thenardier Waltz.
What truly shines in this show is the incredible costume and makeup design by Beth Laske-Miller. The vision of a manic circus is clear in every element. The costumes, somewhere between steampunk and Goth, are frightening without being grotesque, and the white-faced harlequin makeup on the entire cast is dirtied and smeared just enough to add the perfect level of creepiness to the clownish look.
Miller doesn’t shy away from a grossly fearsome design when necessary, though. The title character, who is supposed to look terrifyingly unkempt, is absolutely chill inducing. A massive, unkempt wig covers all but the actor’s chin; and three-foot-long, talon like fingernails would make even the strongest stomach flip when menacingly undulated. A haunting, banshee-like scream from sound designer Jon Mathias adds to the eerie atmosphere.
Strong acting from the entire ensemble helps solidify Director Ed Rutherford’s vision, most notably from Kat Evans and Kevin Webb. Evans is a truly gifted ensemble actress, able to seamlessly transition from singing cat to fidgety boy to watery siren in a matter of minutes. Each role carries no trace of the previous character, but rather a whole-hearted assimilation into the starkly different characters.
The stand out star of the production is Webb as the show’s Cabaret-emcee-on-steroids ringleader. With a posh, feathered top hat, a fabulous upper-crust British accent and a coy and self-indulgent demeanor, this master of ceremonies is a master of comedic timing. His sparkling antics provide the necessary comic relief to balance the show’s morbidity.
Unfortunately, there are elements that detract from an otherwise entertaining production. While there are many fantastically executed circus tricks, including a limber stilt walk from Ellen DeSitter and a whirling, graceful solo dance from Genevieve Lerner, other elements, like the shadow puppets, look as if they’re being improvised on the spot. They aren’t essential to the plot and add nothing to the show; it would be best to cut these poorly executed gimmicks.
The band carries the upbeat, manic score, as the singing is underwhelming and especially disappointing when taken in context with the strength of the other elements of the show. This is exacerbated by the flimsiness and vapidity of the book itself; after all, its creators, The Tiger Lillies, are musicians, not writers. This show is more carnival than theater; its purpose is to look impressive and entertain, not to have deep meaning, so each downfall in technical acuity is glaringly noticeable.
While not the strongest choice for those looking for thought-provoking art, the show is still highly entertaining for horror-lovers and circus-goers alike. For those who need to get their macabre fix before Halloween, this spectacle satisfies and dazzles.
Black Button Eyes Productions presents “Shockheaded Peter” through September 16 at the Athenaeum Theatre Studio Two, 2936 N. Southport Ave., Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.