at the Athenaeum Theatre
Is dark humor possible in a dark time? This was the question going through my mind as I watched Shockheaded Peter, a cruel, episodic piece based on an 1845 German children's book--Heinrich Hoffmann's Der Struwwelpeter ("Slovenly Peter"). These stories, partly represented through puppetry and live music, are as grim as the fairy tales the Brothers Grimm collected and published around the same time, yet they're played for laughs. Not at all meant for children, they poke fun at adult seriousness, 19th-century pomposity, and theatrical convention.
In one of Hoffmann's cautionary narratives, a boy can't stop sucking his thumbs--so his mother cuts them off. What's funny is the way he's been seduced by his own thumb even after his mother's long lecture. In another, a fidgety kid falls out of his chair and dies. A rabbit wrestles the gun from a beastly hunter, shoots him and his wife dead, then goes home and kills his own baby.
These dark tales are made even darker by a production in which all the actors wear funereal black and whiteface and accent every moment of horror and cruelty. In the thumb-sucking story, the boy is represented by a rather sweet-faced life-size marionette with oversize thumbs. The cute, guileless puppet easily wins our hearts, yet it's easier--and funnier--to do cruel things to him than to a live actor, like snip off his thumbs while he opens his eyes wide and wails.
Reviewers of the show's early productions in Great Britain called it "deliriously funny" and "wonderfully, funnily horrid." Black comedy depends for part of its power on daring to say or do things an audience isn't expecting but secretly wants to see and hear. Edward Gorey's vicious little books about children who waste away and murderous couples are hilarious because they connect with our inner sadomasochist. Horror stories appeal for the same reason.
But dark humor--like roller coasters and haunted houses--is appealing only when the audience has an underlying sense of safety. To enjoy being frightened out of our wits, we need to sense that nothing is going to happen to us. And we don't feel invincible anymore. It's been hard for many people to leave the protective wombs of their homes. And it's not easy to laugh at comedy based on people suffering horrible, foolish deaths when we're aware of how suddenly and stupidly we all could die.
Over the past decade, dark humor has increasingly driven even mainstream comedy. Consider the Annoyance and Second City shows. And nationally The Simpsons, Saturday Night Live, and late-night TV have all been packed with cynical, sometimes quite cruel jokes about human nature and American society. But last week David Letterman, Jay Leno, and even Conan O'Brien seemed struck dumb, unwilling or unable to come up with anything funny. Something has changed in comedy.
For this reason Shockheaded Peter seems very much a relic--though part of that is by design. Put together in 1998 at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, the show is filled with archaic theatrical devices, including a reproduction of a 19th-century proscenium stage complete with very fakey painted flats. The actors resemble refugees from a German expressionist play or movie: their ghastly makeup recalls the 1919 film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The show's narrator looks like he belongs in a Weimar cabaret but sounds like a pompous Shakespearean actor of 100 years ago, even delivering an extremely windy rendition of a speech from Richard III.
The tales are told partly through mime, partly through elaborate, quite stunning puppetry--both references to the century-old panto shows of English theater--and are accompanied by the Tiger Lillies, throwbacks in look and sound to Weimar Germany: their tunes are bargain-basement Kurt Weill. (Often acting as a sort of Greek chorus, they narrate or comment on the action--though in general their lyrics are better than the rather unsophisticated music.)
But what seems most old-fashioned about Shockheaded Peter is the expectation that we'll be greatly amused by it. Mind, the show hasn't been old-fashioned in this sense very long. On opening night, September 19, the audience seemed divided. Perhaps a quarter of them laughed like idiots at everything. Another, relatively small group didn't seem to get it or were offended: I saw a number of people leave before the show was over. The rest seemed caught in the middle, laughing fitfully part of the time, stone silent the rest.
The show is entertaining. Julian Bleach is wonderfully overblown as the narrator, though he shows signs of having played the role (which he originated) too long: he has a habit of milking every bit, however tepid, for maximum laughs. The puppetry is amazing if sometimes ghoulish, as when the deaths of three playground bullies are signified by marionettes hanging from the flies. And Martyn Jacques's eerie falsetto voice cuts through the Tiger Lillies' tunes like a knife.
But for most of the show most of the audience seemed too uncomfortable to laugh much or loudly. Then, near the end, an odd thing happened. It was as if the audience had finally decided to give in to the gallows humor. The jokes were no funnier, but they got bigger laughs, perhaps because the best black comedy allows us to acknowledge the horrible things that happen and symbolically mourn our own deaths.
For all the misfires early on, the folks in this campy, nihilistic piece do eventually pull the audience in. The show's final scene, in which a tombstone springs up onstage for every character who died, is a triumph of twisted, spooky humor. In our suddenly much more anxious world, we could do worse than study how Shockheaded Peter makes us laugh at evil and death.