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For Company One, recreating “Shockheaded Peter” as it was originally produced would have proved impossible. The nightmarish musical, created by Julian Crouch and Phelim McDermott in 1998, wickedly critiques Heinrich Hoffmann’s “Struwwelpeter,” a collection of Victorian, Brothers Grimm-esque moral and cautionary tales originally written to scare the author’s son into behaving.
The challenge at hand is not found in the complexity of the source material, but how the play was built around the unique, unmatchable aesthetic of The Tiger Lillies, a British cult musical trio who are credited as the pioneers of Brechtian Punk Cabaret and can be recognized by Martyn Jacques’ trademark falsetto. Instead of attempting to fill the trio’s six shoes for the New England premiere, Company One decided to style it all their own. Integral to that was finding a collaborator as theatrical and particular — and perhaps peculiar — as The Tiger Lillies.
Enter Boston’s own steamcrunk seven-piece ensemble: Walter Sickert and the Army of Broken Toys.
“I knew right away that the collaborators on such a visual and experiential project make the thing or break it,” Shawn LaCount, artistic director of Company One, says of the play, which previews on March 6 before opening on the 7th. The play runs through April 4.
“It was kind of a no-brainer. The people who came to mind immediately were the Army of Broken Toys. They are a band that understands what theater is, which is really important, because we weren’t asking them to sit quietly behind a scrim and play like you would in a musical. We were asking them to lend their aesthetic to take over the piece — the primary artistic collaborator.”
As LaCount sought the rights to “Shockheaded Peter” with the Army of Broken Toys in mind, the band had their eyes on Company One, too. Last spring, after attending a performance of Annie Baker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Flick” at Suffolk’s Modern Theatre, home also to “Peter,” band member Edrie took to Twitter. LaCount recalls the tweet from @armyoftoys: “Loved the piece and would love to work together sometime.”
“I tweeted back right away,” says LaCount with a laugh. “‘Funny you should say that …’”
More surprising than the fortuitous timing is the special relationship the Army of Broken Toys has with the material and The Tiger Lillies. After graduating high school, on a trip of self-discovery and shenanigans driving around the country in his Cadillac, Walter Sickert says he heard about an ongoing production of “Shockheaded Peter” and sought it out. He saw two performances on back-to-back nights.
“I had never seen anything that was so grotesque and beautiful,” says Sickert on the phone during one of the many blizzards that have hindered, but not halted rehearsals. “It married a lot of the things I loved when I was a kid. The Jim Henson-style puppets and the feeling that you’re seeing something you’re too young to see. You know, you stayed up late to see the horror movie that’s on TV past your bedtime.”