Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco


The final production of the American Conservatory Theatre, 1999-2000 season was an eerie and hilarious production of Shockheaded Peter. This production was the hit of London and New York and it developed quite a cult following in those cities. The melodrama with music was described as a junk opera and that is what it was. I mean that in the nicest way since we enjoyed the 90 minute no intermission creation. It was strange theater, make no mistake about that.

Shockheaded Peter was first produced in England with Michael Morris thinking up an idea of a musical based on Heinrich Hoffmann's Der Struwwelpeter or in English Slovenly Peter. The first books were published in 1844 and became a children's cult classic in the Victorian area. The stories were meant to entertain children with their bizarre moralizing. The books told of the awful things that can happen to children if they fidget, play with matches, don't eat their soup or suck their thumbs. If they are bad little boys and girls terrible things will happen to them. This is what happens to the children in the vignettes that make up the production.

Mr. Morris put together an adaptation of the poems using Mr Hofflann's own words. He assembled several British actors and musicians who called them selves, Tiger Lilies. The production opened in 1997 in Leeds and then moved on to the Lyric Hammersmith Theatre in London where it became an instant hit. This ACT production is a co- production of Lyric Hammersmith Theatre.

This production plays like a Victorian melodrama; a combination of a melodrama, Shakespeare, Edward Gorey and Edward Scissorhands. It fuses all of this with puppetry and some eccentric and delicious music from the Tiger Lilies trio. One is reminded of Cirque du Soliel without the acrobats. There are a series of macabre scenes showing what happens to bad little boys and girls. Examples are the little girl who plays with matches and burns herself to death, the little boy who sucks his thumbs and has his thumbs cut off, the little boy who will not eat his soup and starves to death, and the bully who beats his dog and is fatally bitten by a rabid dog and bleeds to death.

All of this takes place in a distorted dollhouse in the center of the stage. There are three doors on each side of the house and strange beings come out of these doors. It looks like a gigantic Victorian pop up storybook set. The actors are in grotesque make up, with stark white faces like European clowns and heavy black accentuating the grisly or ghostly details.

There are five actors including the narrator Julian Bleach, who had a lead role in the film, Topsy Turvey. He looks like a stock melodramatic villain that one might have seen gracing a Victorian stage. He gives the audience a stern warning at the beginning of the 90 minute play. "Those of a weak constitution, leave. Such things are not for the incontinent." Mr. Bleach was astonishing in this role. He held the stage with his over exaggerated gestures. You could call him an old time Victorian ham. His first words to the audience, in a very slow cadence " I am- ---the world's greatest actor----of all time." He also overacted in soliloquies from Hamlet and Richard III. Does he ham it up, but boy is he fun to watch.

The other two leading actors are Anthony Cairns and Tamzin Griffin. Both British actors who are incredible as the parents of Peter. They also play various other roles in the vignettes. Peter is played by a puppet and by a gigantic monster at the end of the play. There are life size puppets, grotesques, weird monsters, and even a stork.

Martyn Jacques is the musical director, vocalist and accordionist of the Tiger Lilies. He wrote and sings the music for the production with a wonderful, high falsetto voice and a fantastic creative style. Some of the melodies remind me of Cirque du Soliel. The rest of the Tiger Lily trio consists of drums and a bass viola. Strange and wonderful melodies come from this group.

You can't leave this brilliant production without thinking what you might see in your dreams or in the deep recesses of your mind. This is a dazzling production with which to end A.C.T.'s current season. The production runs until July 16 at the Geary Theatre. Tickets are $14 to $55. Don't take the kiddies under 10 years old, they will be scared to death.

ACT has a brilliant upcoming 2000-01 season opening with the World Premier of Frank Loesser's new production of Hans Christian Andersen in the fall. This is be followed by Moliere's The Misanthrope, David Mamet's, Glengarry Glen Ross. Also on the calendar is, Goodnight Children Everywhere, the winner of the Olivier Award for Best New Play. This will be followed by Luigi Pinandello's, Enrico IV, Athol Fugard's, Master Harold and the Boys. A.C.T. will also present their annual Christmas treat, Dickens's A Christmas Carol.


- Richard Connema

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