Followers of Jobsite Theater might sense a disquieting familiarity with the company’s new production, Shockheaded Peter, based on an iconic 19th century German children’s book.
It’s a dark, twisted show starring grotesquely made-up misfits and malevolents, weaving a tale – or, in this case, a series of short tales – engineered to induce as much seat-squirming as laughter and applause.
And hey, it’s a musical!
As with earlier Jobsite productions – Gorey Stories, Lizzie and The Threepenny Opera, for example, Shockheaded Peter – which debuted on the London stage in 1998 – is an elaborate exercise in staged weirdness, for your entertainment pleasure.
Its British creators described the show as a “junk opera.”
“It’s a cabaret, it’s a burlesque, it’s vaudeville,” says artistic director David Jenkins, who’s directing the production. “In the classical sense of burlesque, not people taking their clothes off – the darkness in it. We have people who said ‘I know how to tap dance,’ and we said ‘OK, let’s give that a shot.’
“We talked early on about putting together a company of people who could do more than one thing – actors who can also sing, and also operate puppets. Actors who can sing and dance. Actors who can also play an instrument, or bring some other special skill to the table.”
The cast includes a number of Jobsite perennials, including Paul Potenza, Amy E. Gray, Colleen Cherry, Spencer Meyers and Jonathan Harrison.
Add to that impressive list a musical trio, live onstage, helmed by Florida Bjorkestra mastermind Jeremy Douglass. Between them, the three musicians play more than 20 instruments, from the standard-issue to the supremely strange.
Katrina Stevenson and Kasondra Rose are in the cast, too, spinning from suspended silks as only they can (those who saw A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 2020 experienced them in action).
“From the beginning,” Jenkins explains, “it was like ‘how do we incorporate aerial skills into the show? How many creative ways can we use these silks?’ The silks themselves become part of the environment, and they’re used, and they’re touched.
“We found ways to weave Katrina and Kasondra through the stories. Sometimes the two of them are showgirls. Sometimes they’re aerialists. Sometimes they’re playing characters. In one of the stories, they wear these ridiculous giant rabbit heads.
“It really is a devised piece that has been co-created as we’ve gone through.”
Written by Dr. Dr. Heinrich Hoffmann in 1844, Struwwelpeter (pronounced Strool’vel-pay-ter) is a collection of stories about misbehaving children – always a popular subject in European fairy tales – who receive, in bizarre and violent ways, their comeuppance.
The book both fascinated and horrified generations, and can be seen as the seeds for the works of auteurs from Maurice Sendak and Roald Dahl to Tim Burton and Lemony Snicket.
“There’s this whole idea that if life is not something that we should take too seriously, then maybe neither is death,” says Jenkins. “I think that when we as humans are able to sort of laugh in the face of death, or find humor, there’s something going on there that gets in the back of our lizard brains, and it’s its own kind of catharsis. I think there’s something liberating in that.”
Jenkins says he draws inspiration from the pioneering work of the Berliner Ensemble, created by Threepenny Opera playwright Bertolt Brecht and his wife, Helene Weigel, in the 1940s.
And this: “I personally have a darker bent. Growing up a goth kid, going to Rocky Horror, all these things. The theatricality of ‘70s and ‘80s metal music, and gothic music and punk music and all these things that I was really steeped in. I’m a huge fan of the horror genre. So I think maybe I’ve always been drawn to the macabre.”
Even though it doesn’t open until Friday (June 11), Shockheaded Peter is already destined for the Jobsite’s Greatest Hits album. The first weekend, and most of the second, sold out weeks in advance. The run has been extended through July 3.
“That is a great sign, I think, of life returning to the world,” enthuses Jenkins. “And a stamp of approval: ‘Jobsite’s gettin’ weird! Let’s go check that out.’”
Tickets are here.