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Performance Review:

"SHOCKHEADED PETER," presented by CAPA and Jam Theatricals in association with Steppenwolf Theatre and Pomegranate Arts, at the Athenaeum Theatre

BY LUCIA MAURO

A steady stream of self-immolations and hacked-off limbs – made more gruesome by the fact that the victims are children – might lead audiences to believe that "Shockheaded Peter" is a hard-to-stomach theatrical showcase that revels in gleeful perversions. But this ingeniously crafted performance-puppetry piece billed as a "junk opera" –which premiered four years ago at England’s West Yorkshire Playhouse – achieves that rare balance between exaggerated horror and intelligent hilarity.

Now in a limited engagement at the Athenaeum Theatre, "Shockheaded Peter" – created by the multitalented ensemble and co-directed by Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch of London’s Improbable Theatre – was inspired by "Der Struwwelpeter" ("Slovenly Peter"), Heinrich Hoffman’s grotesque 19th century book chronicling outrageous punishments for unruly children. And while the artists behind this twisted Edward Gorey-like funhouse top Hoffman’s story with a thick dollop of gore, they understand the mere whisper that separates a cry from a chuckle.

So this grand guignol play room filled with ironic invention is extraordinarily funny in a profoundly anguished way. It shoves us toward our mortality but figuratively sends us soaring onto a carousel of glaring and distorted priorities creakily moving up and down. At "Shockheaded Peter’s" wildly thumping heart lay a fairly innocent story about the magnificent spectacles and failures of the theatrical medium itself.

The performance opens with the self-aggrandizing, Dickensian master of ceremonies making a formidable entrance, only to remain in a state of baffled stillness. He then creeps and flits about the stage hell bent on proving he’s the greatest actor who ever existed. But his narcissistic proclamations only lead to a series of bumbling pyrotechnics, which are exposed every time an actor stumbles with a prop or loses a wig or makes an entrance half-dressed in a furry feline suit. The cast unexpectedly drops its melodramatic guard – deconstructing, in a brilliantly layered sense, the illusions that draw us to the "safe" environs of the theater in the first place.

Considering all these high-haired metaphors floating around this skewed "Rabbit Hole" of a stage set (or marionette theater) within a stage set – accented by multiple doors and windows – it’s difficult to nail down "Shockheaded Peter’s" plot. Nevertheless, the master of ceremonies’ futile attempts at putting on a sensationalistic show are framed by the story of a Victorian couple who longs for a child. When a gangly stork literally arrives with its bundle "twixt its mandibles," the pair reels in horror over the appearance of a baby with "Edward Scissorhands" digits and a shock of fiery hair. They enclose him under the floorboards -- except this tell-tale heart sprouts knife-life fingers that cut through the planks and put the whole well-ordered house under a grim tonsorial spell.

Meanwhile, the deliciously surreal composer-accordionist Martyn Jacques -- of the underground cabaret group The Tiger Lillies -- serves as another narrator who takes us through the various diabolical punishments of disobedient youngsters in a piercing falsetto voice that sounds as if it is being piped out of a little mechanical figurine in lederhosen. Jacques is boldly accompanied by fellow fantastical musicians Adrian Huge and Adrian Stout (whose names alone sound like something out of the Brothers Grimm).

Over the course of 90 minutes, they unroll a lushly imaginative dream of magnified faces, bowler hats, a hare that stalks a hunter, and a spindly man waving over-sized scissors – all proving the emcee’s theory that "the mind is full of monsters."
"Shockheaded Peter’s" language is piquant and wrapped in glorious double-entendres. For example, the emcee announces that the distraught childless couple plans to take "a second crack at the parental whip" and narrates a smartly self-satiric fable of the pickled man and weeping woman (tears spouting like a geyser) as they get ensnared in "the maze of mayhem."

Julian Bleach as the flustered and faux-demonic master of ceremonies steals the show with his physical agility and precisely-placed intonations. He exists on the same alternative plane as the jolly but brazenly impish Jacques, whose shrill voice punctures the emcee’s vain attempts at theatrical stardom. Also versatile and engaging are Tamzin Griffin as the Mother and Anthony Cairns as the Father – who take on other pungent roles.

"Shockheaded Peter" is an artful examination of the darker caverns of the human psyche lit by a giggly glimmer of humor that makes both our existence and its inevitable demise not only bearable but worthwhile.

"Shockheaded Peter" runs through October 14 at the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport. Tickets: $27-$50. Call 312-902-1500 or log onto www.shockheadedpeter.com.

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