Presented at the Athenaeum Theatre by Black Button Eyes Productions, Shockheaded Peter presents a series of gruesome vignettes adapted from a German book entitled The Struwwelpeter, written in 1845 by Heinrich Hoffman. The stories are far grimmer than even Grimm’s grimmest, with children dying left and right for all manner of reasons. One girl plays with matches and ignites herself, another young lad sucks his thumbs; his thumbs are snipped off by a giant pair of scissors and he promptly bleeds to death.
It certainly sounds grisly, but this macabre fare has quite a following: the 1998 production by Julian Crouch and Phelim McDermott received rave reviews when it came to New York City, wowing audiences with its puppetry, bizarre stories, and original songs by the Tiger Lillies. Black Button Eyes Productions’ iteration of the material delivers in some of this style; however, a good portion of the production’s elements are executed halfheartedly compared to other pieces. Take for example, Beth Laske Miller’s costume design. Characters’ dress is rendered exquisitely, a winning combination of Victorian form paired with Tim Burton-esque flair. Technically, Miller’s costuming is the high point of Shockheaded Peter’s design; other elements, such as a bright-red prop matchbox and the ABC blocks that actors maneuver about the stage to create levels feel more hurriedly created, their paintjobs belying the fact that perhaps it was a race to the finish these aspects of the production.
Kevin Webb sets the bar high as the Master of Ceremonies for the performance, and, unfortunately, not all of the actors are able to reach that same level throughout the play. Sure, they may have some other tricks to bring to the table (at one point in the play an actor walks on stilts; a contortionist is inexplicably wheeled onstage in a wagon), but as an ensemble, the cast never fully gels, seeming to only halfheartedly commit to the style and execution of each vignette.
Ed Rutherford’s direction doesn’t help to clarify the material, either. The inefficiency in which the Athenaeum’s space is utilized leads to a cramped and crowded feeling that aren’t in service to the play. At many times, the large ensemble of actors has no place to go onstage, partially as a result of a live band’s permanent presence upstage center. Rutherford is able to stage the smaller musical numbers a bit better, with “Bully Boys” and “Flying Robert” standing out amongst the rest in their execution and creativity.
“Flying Robert,” actually, is the high point in the show’s otherwise tedious and repetitive 60-minute running time. Musically, the cast soars, and Rutherford manages to utilize the central aisle in a way that helps the number breathe. Otherwise, the production lacks a clear focus. Near the end of the piece, Webb’s character turns to the audience and comments, “This is all meaningless to you isn’t it?” “Indeed,” I thought, “What’s the point of it all?” The Master of Ceremonies continued with the justification that he hopes we all consider the darkness lurking under our floorboards. Even considering such a thematic focus, it’s hard to say that Black Button Eyes Productions has fully managed to mine the source material to any engaging end. Perhaps with a more cohesive throughline and moments as strong as “Flying Robert,” such a message would rise to the surface.
Shockheaded Peter runs at the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport, through September 16. Tickets are available by calling the box office at 773-935-6875 or online at www.athenaeumtheatre.org.