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Learning How to Behave Comes at a Price in Cygnet’s “Shockheaded Peter”

By   /  June 3, 2017  /  No Comments


 TR Robertson …The latest production for Cygnet Theatre, in Old Town’s San Diego State Historic Park, will send chills down the spines for some, send others laughing out of the theatre and, perhaps, bring a few nightmares for others. Be assured, this is a performance you will not forget any time soon. Inspired by a German children’s book, written by physician, Dr. Heinrich Hoffmann, in 1845, ten illustrated and rhymed stories about misbehaving children and the consequences their actions bring, unfold in a macabre, eerie and at times humorous manner on stage.

The play is the result of the combined efforts of Julian Crouch and Philem McDermott and London’s Improbable Theatre, along with the band Tiger Lillies, who took Hoffmann’s book, Der Struwelpeter, and developed a play unlike anything on stage at that time.  The show debuted, in 1998, at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds. It would make its American premiere in 1999 at New York’s Victory Theatre.

Photos by Daren Scott

Associate Artistic Director for Cygnet, Rob Lutfy, rose to the challenge when the opportunity to stage this play came along. The play requires actors and actresses to use a variety of props, puppets, costumes appearances on stage from numerous entries as they create these incredible tales on stage. Costume and puppet designer Shirley Pierson, Lighting Designer Chris Rynne, Wig and Make-up Designer Peter Herman, Choreographer Michael Mizerany, Scenic Designers Sean Fanning and Jungah Han bring to stage ever changing appearances, designs and effects to create these over the top stories of misguided children who need to be disciplined.

This children’s book was written by Dr. Hoffmann as a result of a search for picture books for his three year old son. He found nothing he liked and decided to write his own stories about children, how they should behave in various situations and what would happen if they didn’t. The “what would happen” is the key as in the stories the misbehaving children suffer horrible injuries which generally lead to death. As others read what the good doctor had written, they wanted copies and the book soon became one of the top selling children’s books of all time. Hundreds of editions have been published in many languages, including an 1891 translation by Mark Twain, which was released 25 years after Twain’s death.

What makes a play like this unique is a very talented set of actors and actresses, able to work with this unusual play and take what some would say is a very macabre story and leave you with a smile on your face. The play is rated PG-13 and at the entrance a small sign tells you the play will have haze, smoke effects and childhood nightmares. For 90 uninterrupted minutes on stage, what will unfold is a clever, entertaining production unlike anything most have seen on stage.

The play begins with the curly, mustached Emcee, played by Sarah Errington, preparing the audience for what they might see unfold on stage. Sarah is a veteran actress who has been in several other Cygnet productions. At one point the Emcee becomes a rabbit who turns the tables on a hunter and hunts the hunter. This is the only tale that does not involve children. We are introduced to the Father, played by Cygnet veteran, Adrian Alita, and the Mother, played by Kevane La’Marr Coleman, a veteran of many local productions and the Boston Ballet. The Mother and Father desire a child. The child they will eventually get arrives by a “stork”, but is not quite the baby they wanted. This is the only child in the stories that is punished, by hiding him away, for simply being different – Shockheaded Peter has unruly hair and out of control fingernails. It’s the parents that need disciplining in this story. That comes later.

The audience is led through the stories by the Emcee and the Siren, played by Steve Gouveia. Gouveia quickly becomes an audience favorite as he will play 5 different instruments throughout the play, sing the tales in a wonderful falsetto voice (reminiscent of Martyn Jacques of the Tiger Lilies), interact with the audience, appears from a variety of entrances on stage and his make-up and hair brings back images of a deranged Jack-in-the-Box.

The stories will unfold as we hear the tale of Cruel Fredrick who hurts those around him, Foolish Harriet who plays with matches, Augustus who turns down the food he is given to eat, Conrad who is told to stop sucking his thumb, Arthur-William & Ed who are bully boys, Fidgety Phillip who won’t sit still and upsets the dinner table, Johnny Head-in-the-air who is a day dreamer and Flying Robert who plays in a storm only to be swept away. In each case, the children will pay with their lives for their misdeeds in the most bizarre, and astonishingly humorous ways you can imagine. The Flying Robert story is beautifully performed acrobatically on stage by Danielle Airey using two red cloth drapes that descend from the ceiling in a kettle as a Tiger Lillie ballad is sung. Using large and small puppets, masks, face paint, and carefully choreographed scenes, the Ensemble of Marc Caro-Willcox, Donny Gersonde, Siri Hafso and Isaac Kalimo are one minute servants for Mother and Father and the next minute participants in one of the stories.

There are definite moral undertones we are to take away from these tales. Several times the Emcee tells us, “A wise man sees the errors of his way – a fool passes on and is punished”. Mother and Father will go through changes as well as they learn acceptance and are punished for their transgressions. As the Emcee says, “Sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind and sometimes you have to be cruel for recreational purposes.” Perhaps not the best parenting philosophy, but when these stories were written in the mid-1800’s, the general way society looked at how children should be treated was drastically different than today. The Emcee also reminds us that “the mind is full of monsters”

You know your evening is going to be more than interesting when you read David Bowie’s comment about the play, “A vile and repulsive story told by reprehensible characters in a thoroughly degenerate fashion. Absolute Bliss”. “Shockheaded Peter” will be playing at Cygnet until June 18th. Tickets are available by going to www.cygnettheatre.com or call 619-337-1525. Next up for Cygnet to kick-off Season 15 will be “Animal Crackers” beginning on July 5th.



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