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BWW Review: You've Never Seen Anything Like Jobsite Theater's SHOCKHEADED PETER

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It's like Pippin set in hell.

BWW Review: You've Never Seen Anything Like Jobsite Theater's SHOCKHEADED PETER

"Just look at him! There he stands!/With his nasty hair and hands./See! His nails are never cut;/They are grim'd as black as soot;/And the sloven, I declare,/Never once has comb'd his hair;/Any thing to me is sweeter/Than to see Shock-headed Peter." --from the original Der Struwwelpeter

"You've gotta be cruel to be kind, in the right measure/Cruel to be kind, it's a very good sign/Cruel to be kind, means that I love you, baby/You've gotta be cruel to be kind..." --Nick Lowe, "Cruel to Be Kind"

I first heard of Der Struwwelpeter 45 years ago when I was a teenager reading William Maloney's The Worst of Everything. The categories in Maloney's book celebrated noxious badness and ranged from The Worst Place to Go When You're Dead (The Lake of Fecal Matter) to The Worst Singer (Florence Foster Jenkins) to The Worst Ken Russell film (The Devils). And guess what was voted the Worst Children's Book? Yep, Der Struwwelpeter (SHOCKHEADED PETER) with its deranged stores of dismembered thumbs and other illustrated childhood atrocities destined to give its young readers nightmares.

Heinrich Hoffman's notorious storybook, Der Struwwelpeter, has been around since 1845, originating from Germany. The book taught lessons in the most cruel manner (hence the above Nick Lowe quote). Setting the sadistic morality stories to music, with the band onstage, Jobsite is the only local theater to do such a joyously gruesome and deranged work justice. Even though Julian Crouch and Phelim McDermott's stage version of SHOCKHEADED PETER was written in 1998 (with original musical and lyrics by the Tiger Lilies), this production currently at the Jaeb feels new and has the indelible Jobsite fingerprints all over it (the script is only 23 pages, but Jobsite and director David Jenkins stretches it out to 80 minutes of sheer oddness and gleeful morbidity).

In some ways, it looks like Jobsite Theater's Greatest Hits: Oddball puppets that would have found a home in Hand to God; aerialists directly from A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Tempest; and most of the cast from past cult faves like Return to the Forbidden Planet and Silence! The Musical.

It's a superb production of some questionable material. And bizarre as it is--at times it's like a circusy Pippin set in hell--it's not the weirdest show I've seen. It doesn't come near the uncomfortable peculiarity of a cabaret in Los Angeles where I witnessed the Goddess Bunny (R.I.P.) badly lip-synching Madonna's "Vogue" and another singer crooning "Love for Sale" while videos of elephant slaughter played on screens behind him. Or, in a different show, a full-length performance in slow motion where a naked woman in butterfly wings took an hour to go from Stage Left to Stage Right (L.A. again). But this is certainly the strangest Jobsite show that I can recall and one of the oddest local shows I have attended, rivaling freeFall's Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play (which split audiences but that I thoroughly enjoyed). I have a feeling that SHOCKHEADED PETER may also split audiences, but the Opening Night crowd was very enthusiastic, laughing at the mayhem and stories that all end quite tragically.

The cast is to die for.

Paul Potenza owns the stage as the M.C., who is not unlike Cabaret's infamous Emcee or Pippin's diabolical Leading Player. (And while we're at it, please Jobsite, someday do Cabaret with this particular cast, with Potenza's Emcee leading the way.) With his face painted mime-white, he resembles Boris Karloff in The Ghoul. "Those with weak constitutions leave now," he instructs the audience. "This show is not for the incontinent." Potenza is given free reign and hovers around the stage throughout the show, always electrifying the proceedings to life, and throwing an improvised barb or two out there. On the night I saw it, he included a Tom Brady allusion and a nod to the critics in the audience when a cast member made a late entrance (the show is so all over the place that I didn't even notice). He even joins the band on the guitar at the end; is there anything he can't do?

As The Siren--the lead singer of SHOCKHEADED PETER--the incomparable Spencer Meyers, a Jobsite staple best known for his Hedwig, gets to show off his mighty vocal chops (as well as actual mutton chops). His face painted like a clown-faced Droog, he sings the various Germanic nursery rhymes, obviously loving and smiling through each horrific moment, from the "snip, snip, snip" of the thumb-slicing Scissor Man to a young girl who sets fire to herself. He even gets the audience to sing along. There's so much glee in his voice whenever he sings the word "dead" that it's wonderfully quite disquieting. Best of all, he hits some outrageously high notes. Klaus Nomi, move over.

Colleen Cherry in various roles seems to bathe in the macabre, looking like a shock-haired Mary Pickford wanting to play Mrs. Lovett. Imagine Twisted Sister's Dee Snider portraying a little girl and you'll get the idea of what's in store. When she sings near the end, she shakes the rafters with that incredible voice. And you haven't lived until you've seen Ms. Cherry burn to death in the most creative, theatrical fashion imaginable.

The marvelously talented Amy Gray as the Mother/Weeping Woman looks like Martha Washington's corpse, something you'd find in Disney's Haunted Mansion. One of her death scenes is a laugh-out-loud hoot--complete with her holding her tea cup to her mouth the whole time. Jonathan Harrison as the Father/Pickled Man/Hunter is a solid presence on stage and showcases a fine singing voice. His scrumptious duet with Gray on "Flying Robert" may be the highlight of the show.

Kasondra Rose and Katrina Stevenson are the aerialists who twist and turn on the dangling red drapes above the stage. They also choreographed, even including a demented tap routine.

David Jenkins' bold direction keeps the production moving along (and appropriately statue-still when needed); yet you get the idea that he didn't censor many ideas. It's a busy show with everything (sans a kitchen sink) thrown in the mix, a theatrical marvel. It's as if Tim Burton and David Lynch got together to direct this delightfully evil children's book, these gory Gorey-like stories.

Brian Smallheer's top-notched set reminds me of Pee Wee's Playhouse set in "Twin Peaks" (the latter mentioned mainly due to the red drapes used by the aerialists), aided by Jo Averill-Snell's evocative lighting. Katrina Stevenson's costumes are a feast for the eyes, like the wigged jewelry-devouring denizens of Kenneth Anger's Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome. My favorite tech element is the Jack Fisk-like sound design, one of the best of any show in the past several years. The sound keeps you on the edge of your seat, whether a baby's cries growing more intense or the slow water-torture ticking of a clock, turning SHOCKHEADED PETER into a Dickensian Eraserhead.

The puppets are something else, including a giant stork that looks like Big Bird as created by someone feasting on mushrooms. Also present are big Mardi Gras hare heads that need to be experienced. Then there's the puppet that rips off the wings of flies, or the child ("Fidgety Phil") who bleeds to death and ends up a bloodied pin-cushion (all of this as the audience guffaws). With these puppets, most of whom wind up dead, along with the face-painted cast, could the show be retitled The Muppets Meet the Insane Clown Posse?

You don't come to a show like SHOCKHEADED PETER thinking you'll be attending Wicked or Cats (though I prefer the Cheshire-smiling Shockheaded felines to Andrew Lloyd Webber's cats). There isn't that Big Song, that memorable piece of music that you'll be whistling on the way out of the theater doors. Most of the deranged folksy music is to experienced in the moment rather than hummed on the way home. By the way, the three piece band is simply wonderful: The immensely talented Jeremy Douglass (the Music Director responsible for additional compositions), Mark Warren (Onstage Sound Technician), and percussionist Elwood Bond.

I wonder about the people who know nothing about the original Der Struwwelpeter; what will they think of such a show? Will they understand what's going on, or why? It makes me think of a friend of mine who saw Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me on the big screen without seeing a single episode of the "Twin Peaks" series. He said it was the most disturbing film he ever saw, and he didn't understand a single moment of it. I wonder if that will be the reaction of audiences unfamiliar with Heinrich Hoffman's stories. They may understand that these were the inspiration for the likes of Edward Scissorhands, but will they enjoy SHOCKHEADED PETER'S delight in death? Or will they think this "junk opera" is just weird for weird sake?

The show may not be everyone's cup of hemlock, but it certainly rests on my side of the dark alley. Still, as fabulous as the production is, I am personally torn about it. It reminds me of my reactions to Jobsite's Return to the Forbidden Planet several years back--a terrific production that didn't do much for me ("all icing and no cake" is what I called it). Although this show is certainly much different, I left the theater scratching my head. At one point, the M.C. quotes Richard III ("Now is the winter of our discontent") and makes a funny shout out to local actor, Giles Davies. But I thought of another Shakespeare quote, this one from Macbeth: "Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." Is that what SHOCKHEADED PETER is...nothing but sound and fury, all of this theatrical powerhouse for a lesser show that doesn't deserve it? It's theatrically thrilling, but to what end? What do we take with us? And by asking those questions, is that the point: Trying to extrapolate meaning beyond the onstage talent, the oddities, the gore, the cruel lessons of a 180-year-old children's book.

Please see SHOCKHEADED PETER and decide for yourself. Theater is alive in Tampa right now with Stageworks, Tampa Rep and Jobsite opening its doors and producing some glorious works. And don't fret about safety at the Straz; the Covid protocols are all in order, including screenings, temp checks and the socially distant audiences wearing masks throughout the show. (The actors are all vaccinated and don't don masks, so that's not an issue.)

It's the morning after seeing SHOCKHEADED PETER, and the production still clouds my mind. I'm still torn about it, thinking about it, questioning it, which is a good thing. Make no mistake, you've never seen anything like it.

SHOCKHEADED PETER plays until July 3rd at the Jaeb Theater in the Straz Center for the Performing Arts. The production is quickly selling out so make sure to get your tickets now.


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