It's a ghoulish whimsy: when bad things happen to bad children.
By MICHAEL KUCHWARA
NEW YORK -- There are not many entertainments that can be described as both "precious" and "macabre," but "Shockheaded Peter," an arty, yet ghoulish fairy-tale entertainment imported from England would seem to fit the bill.
This visually inventive play with music, which opened Tuesday at off-Broadway's Little Shubert Theatre, revels in its own outrageousness, which should make it prime viewing for older children, especially budding teenagers eager to defy authority and in need of a good scare.
Older folks may be irritated by the show's calculated mixture of shock and smugness, although more damaging is the evening's rambling quality, its parade of horror stories that never offer a dramatic payoff -- only more of the same for an intermissionless 100 minutes.
Think a cut-rate Julie Taymor (of "Lion King" fame) by way of "Jason vs. Freddy," and you will get some idea of the look and subject matter of "Shockheaded Peter." It uses puppets, music and a deliberately inept master of ceremonies (a cadaverous, unfunny Julian Bleach) to tell the stories of bad children who meet equally bad ends.
These demented fables, based on the 19th-century German children's book "Struwwelpeter," are linked by the tale of the title character, a young boy whose parents bury him underneath the floor. The adults, of course, pay for their misdeeds, too.
The play, created by Bleach and a gaggle of other performers (many of whom are in this off-Broadway production), lurches from creepy demise to creepy demise. Among the wee ones meeting untimely ends are Cruel Frederick, whose dog turns on his young master after persistent mistreatment, and Conrad, a thumb-sucking lad whose digits come in for some extreme punishment.