Ghoulish punishments prevail in shocking ‘Shockheaded Peter’


The Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales are hardly the stuff of sweetness and light. In fact, they are filled with examples of great cruelty, much of it perpetrated against children. But set a volume of them beside “The Struwwelpeter” (“Shockheaded Peter”), the 1845 German children’s book by Heinrich Hoffman, and they begin to look like models of enlightened thinking.

Hoffman’s nightmarish stories (no doubt the inspiration for Tim Burton’s 1990 film “Edward Scissorhands”) are a collection of grotesque little “moral” tales supposedly designed to warn children about the punishment to be meted out for bad behavior. But the work seems more like a textbook study of childhood abuse and how to assure the growth of future fascists than anything else. In fact, while most of the infractions described seem no worse than ordinary mischief, benign daydreaming or the most familiar sorts of childhood rebellion, the “punishments” invariably result in death. Hoffman, it is worth noting, was a psychiatrist as well as a writer.

‘SHOCKHEADED PETER’
Highly recommended
When: Through Sept. 16
Where: Black Button Eyes Productions at
the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport
Tickets: $32
Info: (773) 935-6875;
www.athenaeumtheatre.org
Run time: 65 minutes with no intermission

Anthony Whitaker (from left), Kat Evans, Gwen Tulin and Pavi Proczko in Black Button Eyes Productions’ “Shockheaded Peter.” (Photo: Cole Simon)

All that said, Black Button Eyes Productions’ brilliantly realized “Shockheaded Peter” is a sensational work of theater, dance, music, cabaret, puppetry and circus that bursts with exquisite design and bravura performances by a 12-person cast. And as sick and twisted as it is, its depiction of domestic horror is so imaginative — and its score by the British cult band The Tiger Lilies is so seductive in its Brechtian, proto-punk style — that you cannot look away. The first Chicago production of the work since 2001 (when it received an imported British production on the Athenaeum Theatre’s mainstage), it is quite a (warped) gem.

Created by two Englishmen — Julian Crouch (who designed the Joffrey Ballet’s new “Nutcracker”) and Phelim McDermott — the Black Button Eyes production, presented in a far more intimate studio space at the Athenaeum, has now been stunningly directed by Ed Rutherford, who wisely tames the camp and turns to black comedy and a horrifying beauty instead. And it thrives on Derek Van Barham’s choreography and the exceptional music direction of T.J. Anderson, who plays keyboard, flugelhorn and trumpet, and leads the onstage band that also includes Cody “Goose” Siragusa on bass and Cali Kasten on percussion.

Serving as the show’s unapologetically hammy, Shakespeare-spouting (and “Cabaret”-like) MC is Kevin Webb, whose canny performance sets the tone to perfection. This production also highlights the dysfunctional parents in the story, with Stephanie Stockstill playing Mother and Cody Jolly as Father. A well-to-do Victorian-era pair, they have spent years hoping the stork would bring them a baby, but when the boy finally arrives they shrink from the responsibility. Horrified by his wild hair and spindly fingernails, they quickly deposit him in a trunk. (The loveless father will become an alcoholic and his wife will go mad. Fitting punishments.)

Along the way we hear about the boy who terrorizes a dog and in turn is seriously bitten; the boy who is told not to suck his thumbs, but proceeds to do so and has them cut off; the boy who starves to death after refusing to eat his soup; the boy stabbed to death with cutlery for not behaving at the table; the trio of bullies who are decapitated; the daydreaming boy who has an accident and perhaps ends up in a better place; the maid who fails to listen to warnings about not playing with matches and ends up burning to death. And there is more.

The actors, who also include Jessica Lauren Fisher, Caitlin Jackson, Ellen DeSitter, Kat Evans, Gwen Tulin, Josh Kemper, Genevieve Lerner, Pavi Proczko and Anthony Whitaker, are all multitalented — alternately singing, dancing, playing instruments and even walking on stilts.

Adding their own magic are Beth Laske-Miller’s Broadway-level costumes; Jeremiah Barr’s endlessly ingenious set, props, puppetry design and technical direction; Liz Cooper’s color-infused lighting, and John Mathias’ impeccable sound design.

Founded in 2014, Black Button Eyes is devoted to producing “Chicago premieres and seldom-seen works that contain elements of fantasy, and in which the magical and surreal invade reality.” And despite all the profoundly disturbing qualities of “Shockheaded Peter,” it could not be more true to that mission. It also works the sophisticated trick of blending horror and beauty.

(Note: The show is recommended for ages 13 and older. Good advice.)

Ellen DeSitter (on stilts, from left), Kat Evans, Anthony Whitaker, Genevieve Lerner and Caitlin Jackson in Black Button Eyes Productions’ “Shockheaded Peter.” (Photo: Cole Simon)



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