You’ll go blind. Or hair will sprout on your palms. Or you’ll use up your reproductive system and now you can’t have kids. Or mental illness (the sole cure for which is a heaping bowl of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes) will claim your better angels.
Parents, teachers, neighbors, friends and relatives: Everybody knows the myths behind society’s staple autoerotic technique, and may God and Sonny Jesus bestow Their infinite mercy on the wayward practitioner.
The teachers and parents in that crowd may as well have taken a page from Heinrich Hoffmann’s playbook. Hoffmann, a Frankfurt psychiatrist and author, wrote Struwwelpeter (“Slovenly Peter”) in 1845 as a Christmas gift for his 3-year-old son — with Hoffmann’s illustrations, it depicts a clutch of child misbehaviors and the consequences they might fuel.
Suck your thumb? Be prepared to lose it. Play with matches? You’re bound to get burned, and in no uncertain terms. Children were seen and not heard in Hoffmann’s day, and transgressions could mean a cruel and heinous death.
In fact, all the kids die in Shockheaded Peter, Cygnet Theatre’s current entry. Julian Crouch and Phelim McDermott’s musical stage creation would demand no less — such is the enlightenment they expect from us amid one of the most imaginative social commentaries in theater today.
Out of chaos comes caricature. Out of adversity comes delight in simple gamesmanship. Out of ensemble culture has come Cygnet’s finest show since 2010’s wildly dissimilar Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, probably the best non-cabaret musical I’ve ever seen.
Shockheaded Peter is absolutely terrific.
If you like humanoid excess with your puppetry, this is totally your piece. Strident choreography, cacophonous music, ingratiating costumery, ginormous cat faces and stratospheric fingernails dot the stories of kids like Phillip (“Fidgety Phil”), whose picky eating nets him death at the hands of his cutlery; Frederick (“Cruel Frederick”), bitten by a dog and later bedridden after an animal terrorism spree; “The Story of the Man That Went Out Shooting,” wherein a hare steals a gun and hunts his hunter, who eventually falls into a well; and “Augustus,” about a boy who wastes away after declaring he’ll never eat soup again.
Hoffmann was judge, jury and executioner to these kids, seeking correct behaviors by way of trauma and threat.
But like the bloodthirsty ancients who now settle their spats on sports fields, this cast and crew excoriates Hoffmann’s methods through their own extremism — the more peacefully bizarre, the better. Above it all sits our squally master of ceremonies (Sarah Errington), whose scruffy appearance has garnered the disdain of those around him.
‘With comedy, we can rob (the adversary) of his posthumous power.’ — Mel Brooks
“I am the greatest actor that has ever existed!” he declares at the play’s outset — that’s your cue that he’s lost all sense of perspective in pleading the children’s cases.
Indeed, the kids are all right, blithely placing their lives and limbs on the line in an illustration of Hoffmann’s absurd cruelty. (The acrimony works both ways here — Peter’s parents, played by Adrian Alita and Kevane La’Marr Coleman, are eventually driven insane, their vindicated boy flush with vengeance.)
Danielle Airey, Marc Caro-Willcox, Donny Gersonde, Siri Hafso, Isaac Kalimo and Mariel Shaw round out the ensemble behind Michael Mizerany’s pugilistic choreography and Shirley Pierson’s extradimensional costumes and puppets. Patrick Marion’s music direction, Chris Rynne’s lights and Sean Fanning and Jungah Han’s set design virtually speak to the rest of the tech effort, culminating in the stunning “Flying Robert.” Here, Airey is featured in some magnificent acrobatics as a disillusioned, windswept boy sails off for parts unknown.
Director Rob Lutfy, his assistant Vanessa Dinning, original composers The Tiger Lillies and everyone involved have everything to be immensely proud of here. However unwittingly, they’ve embraced the enduring passion of the legendary Mel Brooks, who said, “With comedy, we can rob (the adversary) of his posthumous power.” (Mel also said that “Good taste is the enemy of comedy.” He’s right — and he must have been thinking of this show.)
Meanwhile, the Kellogg’s Corn Flakes thing is the God’s truth. With a straight face, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg declared in the late 19th century that he’d invented a cereal to curb kids’ curiosity about sex. He and Hoffmann would have been after each other’s hearts, fanning the flames ad nauseam over allegedly untoward behaviors of all kinds.
While such deportments exist and always will, we get to choose our reactions to them — something Hoffmann, Kellogg and legions of others can’t fathom and never will. Shockheaded Peter is a hilarious, kaleidoscopic reminder that we’ve evolved at least a little in assigning those reactions a life of their own. Outstanding.
Martin Jones Westlin’s e-mail address is [email protected]
This review is based on the opening-night performance of May 27. Shockheaded Peter runs through June 18 at Cygnet Theatre, 4040 Twiggs St. in Old Town. $41-$62, $43-$64 as of June 1. (619) 337-1525, cygnettheatre.com.