SALT LAKE CITY — A woman pokes her head out between two curtains, lit dimly by warm light that highlights her grotesque, pale makeup and missing teeth. “I am the greatest actor in the world!” she howls. She steps out onto the stage and performs the speech again: “I am the greatest actor in the world! Behind this curtain stand the portals to the darkest recesses of the human imagination within which waits such monsters as your wildest nightmares could never anticipate!” She will be the emcee, the ghoulish guide through a series of grim and giggle-mugging tales of children who meet a sticky end in Shockheaded Peter, a musical with music by Adrian Huge, Martyn Jacques, and Adrian Stout, lyrics by Martyn Jacques, and a book by Julian Bleach, Anthony Cairns, Graeme Gilmour, and Tamzin Griffin based on a book by Heinrich Hoffmann).
As the emcee, Sarah Shippobotham was wonderfully fun. She had a masterful command of the small space, prancing around it with devilish glee. There were moments in which she played with the audience, feigning bewilderment at laughter and teasing with lines like “that’s shut you lot up.” Her narration was highlighted with some of Shakespeare’s most famous soliloquies, including “To be or not to be” (from Hamlet) and “Now is the winter of our discontent” (from Richard III). She managed to make these classical speeches sing while infusing them with humor and color.
The remaining four actors in Shockheaded Peter, Leviticus Brown, Shawn Francis Saunders, Emily Nash, and Brenda Hattingh, made up an ensemble of spooky players that all took turns portraying the varied characters in the hauntingly hilarious tales in this musical. As a group, the four were collectively deft at mingling humor with horror, dancing through grisly material with a rollicking sense of fun. The most impressive element to me was how the actors walked, stood, and crawled over the stage. Indeed, the play was a master class in movement. Hattingh spent the majority of the production on her toes, floating around the stage like an impish dancer, and Brown often entered and exited on all fours, his capacious frame put to full use with nimble grace and powerful force.
As some of the stories were told in song, a band of women led by singer Ashley Wilkinson narrated the stories as the actors performed them. Wilkinson had a unique and expressive voice, delivering the fables with a level of wry and sardonic wit that colored the show with layers of mirth.
Another impressive aspect was the use of props, and one in particular stole the show: a life-size puppet of the titular character made by Madeline Ashton. The puppet was utilized in the style of Japanese Bunraku, and the alarming face and voluminous hair were both creepy and amusing.
I must applaud co-directors Alex Ungerman and Dave Mortensen for creating something decidedly different for the Utah theatre scene. Not only was Shockheaded Peter riotously entertaining—and one I would watch over and over again—but it was a breath of fresh air. The ample supply of grassroots theatre groups is one that makes the Salt Lake Valley theatre scene so dynamic, and I am glad a show like Shockheaded Peter thriving in the new space designed and constructed by Sackerson. The space, located in Sugarhouse, has a charming, homespun feel with a degree of Bohemian flair that matches the show’s mood perfectly. It evokes the impression that uniquely fantastic art is about to be observed, and that is exactly what Sackerson has delivered. Shockheaded Peter is absolutely one of the best shows I have seen this year, and, as it marinates, it is becoming one of my favorite plays.
Full disclosure: One of the co-directors of this production (Dave Mortensen) is the founder of Utah Theatre Bloggers Association. Mr. Mortensen had no involvement with the writing or editing of this piece. Honest criticism was encouraged.