Review: Shockheaded Peter (Black Button Eyes Productions)

| September 11, 2017

Kat Evans, Pavi Proczko and Kevin Webb star in Shockheaded Peter, Black Button Eyes Productions            


Shockheaded Peter

Created by Julian Crouch, Phelim McDermott
Music and lyrics by The Tiger Lillies
Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport (map)
thru Sept 16  |  tix: $32  |  more info
Check for half-price tickets    


An absotively, posilutely cruel delight


Anthony Whitaker, Kat Evans, Gwen Tulin and Pavi Proczko star in Shockheaded Peter, Black Button Eyes

Black Button Eyes Productions presents
Shockheaded Peter

Review by Patrick O’Brien

Parenting isn’t easy, least of all when it comes time to introduce moral instruction. It’s certainly easy to tell children to be good, but things get a lot more vivid when, via fairy tale, parents present them with the consequences of not being good. Don’t stray from the path set out for you, or the wolves will devour you and your loved ones. Don’t be greedy, or a witch will fatten you up for her own dinner. Don’t be selfish and cruel, or you’ll find yourself with nothing in the end, least of all your toes and eyesight.

Kat Evans, Pavi Proczko and Kevin Webb star in Shockheaded Peter, Black Button Eyes ProductionsIn 1845, a German psychiatrist named Heinrich Hoffmann, needing a Christmas gift for his own kids, etched out a few more dire warnings in a book he dubbed Shockheaded Peter, the morals in which are less, well, moral, and the consequences of misbehavior make the Brothers Grimm look like Mother Goose. Exaggerated, tongue-in-cheek, borderline parodic, really, these include: Don’t play with matches, or you’ll burn spectacularly. Don’t go out in the rain, or the wind will sweep you into the sky. Don’t suck your thumbs, or the Tall Tailor will come ‘round and snip them clean off.

The delightful strangeness had only just begun.

Eventually, the stories were adapted into a piece of arch British children’s music theatre for adults, with songs by those sui generis Brechtian cabaret punks, The Tiger Lillies, led by the siren falsetto of Martyn Jacques. It made waves around the world in the late 90s/early aughts, and even came through Chicago on tour in 2001 at the Athenaeum, Tiger Lilies in tow.

Armed with a ton of greasepaint and rouge, and rolls upon rolls of crimson ribbon, Black Button Eyes’ production at the self-same Athenaeum is a marvelous homespun outing, and not just because the piece encourages exactly the sort of homespun bizarrerie that this young company has made its calling card. And director Ed Rutherford and scenic designer Jeremiah Barr encourage it so: forced perspective, puppets, contortionism, stilts, baby heads: name a theatrical trick, it’s up their sleeves.

Ellen DeSitter, Genevieve Lerner, Josh Kemper, Kevin Webb, Anthony Whitaker and Gwen TulinStephanie Stockstill, Cody Jolly and Kevin Webb star in Shockheaded Peter, Black Button Eyes Productions

And it has a fantastic, hook-laden songbook – sounding exactly like you’d expect “Brechtian cabaret punk” to sound – and fantastic singer-musicians to put them across. (T.J. Anderson, Pavi Proczko and Gwen Tulin lead the way with demented confidence.)  None attempt to replicate the otherworldly falsetto that has made the Tiger Lilies’ Martyn Jacques an in-demand performer all across the underworld; none of them need to. The effect is thus less ghostly and somewhat more visceral, which works just fine when one of your soaring lyrical refrains goes “Snip, snip.” And it’s not all bloody; the choral arrangement for “Flying Robert” in particular is to die for.

What especially puts in relief the grotesquerie of childhood gone wrong, however, is the subtle throughline of childhood untouched and distended. Mother and Father (Stephanie Stockstill and Cody Jolly) make a Perfect couple, until one day, they are blessed (cursed?) with a hairy, clawed, thoroughly Less-Than-Perfect child. In true fairy tale fashion, they lock the child away in an attic. Then their clothes start to tatter. Their focus starts to wander. Their hair and nails start growing…

Genevieve Lerner, Caitlin Jackson and Kevin Webb star in Shockheaded Peter, Black Button EyesGenevieve Lerner, Kat Evans and Anthony Whitaker star in Shockheaded Peter, Black Button Eyes

For all the ways it can go horribly wrong, it’s better to raise an imperfect child than not to raise the child at all. So it is that a chastened Mother and Father come to love their little shockheaded Peter.

Were the other children so lucky, though each in turn get their chance to shine. In particular: Anthony Whitaker, who puts on drag a la Lady Bracknell to ghoulish effect, at least when he’s not ripping out dog’s tongues; Caitlin Jackson and her fiery dress; and Genevieve Lerner, who truly makes her Robert fly.

Though if this all seems a bit much, the MC (Kevin Webb, a honey-glazed ham) will show you the exit, stage right. Go on. Feel free.

But trust me: Don’t miss this, or you may have to wait sixteen years for your next chance.

Rating: ★★★★

Shockheaded Peter continues through September 16th at Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport (map), with performances Thursdays-Saturdays at 7:30pm, Sundays 2pm.  Tickets are $32 (students: $17), and are available by phone (773-935-6875) or online through (check for availability of half-price tickets). More information at time: 65 minutes, no intermission)

Ellen DeSitter, Kat Evans, Anthony Whitaker, Genevieve Lerner and Caitlin Jackson star in Shockheaded

Photos by Cole Simon 




Cody Jolly (Father), Stephanie Stockstill (Mother), Kevin Webb (MC), Anthony Whitaker (ensemble, shadow puppetry), Ellen DeSitter, Kat Evans, Josh Kemper, Genevieve Lerner, Caitlin Jackson (ensemble), Jessica Lauren Fisher (alternate), Pavi Proczko, Gwen Tulin (Singers)

behind the scenes

Ed Rutherford (director), T.J. Anderson (music director), Jeremiah Barr (scenic design, props design, puppetry, technical director), Beth Laske-Miller (costume design), Liz Cooper (lighting design), John Mathias (sound design), Derek Van Barham (movement director), Alexa Berkowitz (stage manager). Cole Simon (photos)

Genevieve Lerner, Ellen DeSitter and Josh Kemper star in Shockheaded Peter, Black Button Eyes ProductionKat Evans, Pavi Proczko and Kevin Webb star in Shockheaded Peter, Black Button Eyes Productions


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Category: 2017 Reviews, Athenauem, Black Button Eyes Productions, Musical, Patrick O'Brien

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