This week I witnessed the most warped, macabre, disturbed, gleefully twisted piece of theater I ever hope to see. Needless to say, I loved every minute of it and my face still aches from the constant grin that lit my face for the roughly ninety minutes that the self-described 'junk opera' Shockheaded Peter occupied the stage.
Conceived by Julian Crouch and Phelim McDermott, Shockheaded Peter is based on a series of German stories that make the Brothers Grimm resemble their Prozac-laced Disney counterparts. Imagine, if you will, the morality fables of Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle (in which childhood sins like 'tattletailing' and 'not cleaning your plate' get fixed with magical cures) as told by Edward Gorey (whose classic illustrated alphabet, The Gashlycrumb Tinies, features twenty-six ways children can meet a grisly end) and directed and designed by Tim Burton. Toss in puppets that could have been designed by Monty Python's Terry Gilliam, and actors dressed in Grand Guignol meets Kabuki fashions, and you have a truly wild and wonderful experience on your hands.
Shockheaded Peter is inspired by Die Struwwelpeter, a series of stories written and illustrated in 1844 by a German physician, Heinrich Hoffman, who was looking for a book to give to his three-year old son. Deploring the didactic and sentimental morality lessons he found, he put together a series of fables in which misbehaving children are punished in horrible, yet appropriate, ways. Thus, little girls who play with matches perish in an incendiary blaze and little boys who won't stop sucking their thumbs get them cut off by the Snick Snick Man, leading to them bleeding to death while their mother's laugh and say, "I told you so!"
So what makes infanticide so entertaining? Well, part of it is that the children in Shockheaded Peter definitely have it coming and resemble kids one encounters far too often in real life, such as Cruel Frederick (The Boy Who Tortures Animals) and Fidgety Phil (The Boy Who Won't Sit Still At Dinner). Mostly, however, the show is fun because it is the most unabashedly, unashamed theatrical production I have ever witnessed. In a genre that far-too-often attempts to emulate other art forms, with near-cinematic tricks and high tech recreations of helicopters,
Shockheaded Peter revels in its theatricality. Everything about the show is low tech, from the Victorian inspired flats that make up the scenery and props, to the orchestra, which consists of counter culture group The Tiger Lillies (who also wrote the music) on bass, drums and accordion.
And then there is the cast. Led by a narrator (the delightfully over-the-top Julian Bleach) who opens the show by stating that he is, indeed, "the greatest actor who ever lived (and appears to be the love child of the Emcee and Frank N. Furter), the cast performs multiple roles, including scene change duties. Anthony Cairns and Tamzin Griffin primarily play the 'perfect' parents of the titular character and bury said infant under the floorboards upon discovering he is not as perfect as they would like. Graeme Gilmour and Jo Pocock primarily maneuver the puppets (which they designed with Gorgina Solo and Dean Clegg) and bring many of the characters to silent, yet evocative, life. Martyn Jacques provides vocals for most of the stories, as they are told primarily through song, and he is endowed with one of the most powerful countertenor voices (and warped sensibilities) since Klaus Nomi.
Shockheaded Peter is the perfect show to see during the Halloween season, and if your child is able to handle the works of Roald Dahl or Tim Burton, or relishes the original Grimm tales versus the sanitized Disney ones, then by all means, bring him or her along! While there is violence, it is pure fairy tale in nature and is dispensed only to those deserving of it, as anyone who has ever sat next to a fidgety child on an airplane will agree. Shockheaded Peter runs at the Moore Theatre through November 4th. For more information on the theatre visit www.themoore.com/moore.html. For more information on the show, visit shockheadedpeter.com.
Another form of illusion is being explored at ACT in their season finale, Grand Magic, written by Eduardo de Filippo and newly translated by Thomas Simpson. First performed in 1948, Grand Magic is an exploration of life as illusion, using two art forms that are by their nature proponents of illusion: theater and magic.
At a posh beach resort, a crowd has gathered to watch famed magician, Otto Marvuglia (Ken Ruta), perform his magic act on the beach. In the crowd is Calogero (John Procaccino), an insanely jealous husband who locks his wife Marta (Mari Nelson) in the bedroom when he goes to the bathroom rather than allow her a moment of freedom. Apparently he has just cause, as she is having an affair, and her lover (Paul Morgan Stetler) has arranged with Otto to make Marta 'disappear' for fifteen minutes so the two of them can have some time alone. However, the two decide to flee to Venice, leaving Otto literally holding the bag and having to come up with an explanation for her non-reappearance. Otto's on-the-spot explanation turns into a philosophical journey of delusion versus illusion with the husband, Calogero, being told that his wife is inside an ornate box and that any lack of faith on his part will result in her vanishing forever when he opens the box.
Grand Magic provides a thought-provoking glimpse at how far we will travel down the road of self-delusion to keep our cherished illusions intact. When Grand Magic focuses on this journey, which results in an exploration on identity and madness (causing Grand Magic to bear more than a casual resemblance to Pirandello's Henry IV), it works. Toss in a touch of Schroedinger's infamous quantum theorem (which states, in effect, that until a box is opened, a cat that may or may not have been exposed to poison gas exists in two superposed states: both dead and alive), and you have a show that lives up to its name. Unfortunately, Grand Magic also travels down too many side streets, focusing on minor characters and tangential stories in the process, and thus overstays its welcome. The first act needs to be shortened considerably (especially in regard to a poorly conceived and executed audience participatory magic show that was as long as it was pointless, being a one-shot instance of forth wall breakage), as the meanderings fail to adequately set up what are ultimately far superior second and third acts.
In the final two acts, the show comes to life both philosophically and performance-wise, and it takes the audience far too long to recover from their stupor to fully appreciate either. Which is a shame, as there are many gems present. David Pichette is hysterical as a Naples police inspector who apparently has watched Dragnet or The Untouchables a few too many and is investigating the disappearance. Clayton Corzatte hits every comic note possible in the small role of Calogero's manservant and Peter A. Jacobs is equally effective as the waiter of the hotel. John Procaccino gives a surprisingly varied performance as the husband, with an evolution from arrogant uber-husband to shattered and reintegrated madman. And as the magician, Ken Ruta gives a winning performance as a man who comes to believe the improvisations he is forced to come up with to save his neck and Calogero's ego.
The set by Narelle Sissons displays many fabulous touches, such as a circle in Calogero's parquet floor worn by his constant pacing and a beach fire that magically lit. With some judicious cutting and streamlining, Grand Magic could very easily cast a strong, thought provoking spell on its audience instead of sending them into a deep, deep sleep. Grand Magic runs through November 18th at ACT. For more information visit their website, www.acttheatre.org.
A much more enjoyable evening at ACT was spent the following night at a show that was a complete surprise, The Race Of The Ark Tattoo. This one man show is described as being a flea market followed by a lecture as the audience enters the performing space, one of ACT's rehearsal rooms I believe, instead of one of their usual theaters. Written by W. David Hancock and directed by Melanie Joseph, The Race Of The Ark Tattoo won Obies in 1999 for both the show and its performer, Matthew Maher, who performs here as well.
The Race Of The Ark Tattoo starts with P. Foster (Maher) selling the collected artifacts of Mr. Phinney, his deceased foster father, at a flea market. Mr. Phinney used to host such weekly events out of his Cape Cod garage, and liked to tell stories about each object in his possession. In keeping with this tradition, Foster asks those attending his flea market to pick out items about which they would like to hear the story. These items are placed in a large toy Winnebago and drawn at random, after which we hear the story Mr. Phinney used to tell about the item, as well as the 'real' story and/or one made up by Maher. Thus, the show is different every night depending on the objects selected. However, as the show gains momentum, we discover a hidden story or two interwoven with those of the objects, and this proves to be as exciting as it is disquieting.
The intriguing thing about The Race Of The Ark Tattoo is that one is never certain what is true and what is illusion, which makes for a disturbing evening indeed. One is constantly watching the show on pins and needles, waiting for the other shoe to drop, as a feeling of unease permeates the entire proceedings. Matthew Maher is a natural storyteller and eases his way under one's skin in the gentlest and subtlest of manners. The fact that the show does not resolve itself completely leads one to contemplate the stories told long after the show's 90 minutes have passed, as one works to fit the clues into a rewarding whole.
The Race Of The Ark Tattoo runs through November 11th at ACT. For more information visit their website, www.acttheatre.org.