by Beki Pineda

SHOCKHEADED PETER – Created for the stage by Julian Crouch and Phelim McDermott; Directed by Amanda Berg Wilson. Produced by The Catamounts (Presented at the Dairy Center, 2590 Walnut) through March 7. Tickets available at thediary.org.

SHOCKHEADED PETER is a (mostly) adult Romper Room. It’s a Pajama Party with everyone sharing the spooky stories they learned around the campfire. It’s a visual and aural explosion that engages everyone in the room. The audience sits around the edges of the playing area on sofas and chairs and in the midst of the madness on benches near the stage. They are given very explicit instructions on what they can and cannot do (much like the children in the play) by a Germanic Gendarme (Maggie Tisdale in bloomers). Though intimidating at first until the audience figures out it’s all in fun, this Mother Goose extravaganza on crack soon had people dancing the limbo, juggling (or trying to) and clapping in time to the music.

While the stories are grimmer than Grimm, the style with which they are expressed calls for chortles, chuckles and the occasional ewww. An impressionable  young one might be as shocked as Peter but kids mature enough to recognize tongue-in-cheek humor will revel in the coolness of the whole experience. They would be running from one side of the stage to the other to see what was happening. There are very young actors and teenage performers in the cast; they get it.

Accompanied by Paul Fowler as a wondering minstrel with an accordion  and Matt Powelson and Todd Bilsborough on bass and drums, the cast sings and swings through ten non-fairy tales during which a child either learns a lesson with gruesome consequences or runs afoul of a horrific adult. The warning is given early on that if you continue to be naughty, bad things happen to children who are naughty. Remember the kids in Willie Wonka??  They had it easy!

Visually this was rather like a Cirque du Soliel performance without the gymnastic aspect. Something going on every moment – not always the same thing in each corner. Rather like a symphony with different movements, small moments to breathe happened at the end of each story before they launched full bore into the next one. Lance Rasmussen served as a Ringmaster character in a bright red jacket after proclaiming himself the “best actor in the world.” He is ably assisted in his story-telling duties by eleven other ensemble members who each portray specific characters or assist in their demise.

One major component of the evening was the puppets representing various animals and ghouls. These were designed and created by Tristan Cupp and Aaron Vega, showing imagination and cleverness. The stories were further enhanced by thoughtful special effects involving props, lights and staging. The original stories were written by Heinrich Hoffman who in addition to being a story teller was a psychiatrist who occasionally worked with children. Some of these stories illustrate some of the childhood problems he worked to solve. For instance, The Story of Soup-Kaspar could have been his reaction to a child with anorexia. The Story of Fidgety Phillip could be following a child with what we now call attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. But all were cautionary tales.

Catamounts puts their collective  intelligence, experience and creative imaginations behind each production. Their goal seems to be to find visually exciting ways to tell their stories. And each time they succeed. Tonight more than ever.

A WOW factor of 9!!

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