On a DUMBO stage, Kate Valk—doe-eyed and louche-lipped—stares out from half a dozen monitors. In her gloved hand she clutches a microphone fitted with a plastic snake head named Mr. Viper. “There she is/ Is she there/Look and see/Is she there/Is she there/Anywhere,” Valk singsongs. Mr. Viper, apparently no great fan of Gertrude Stein’s prose (Valk’s lines hail from Stein’s 1938 play Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights), interjects, “Uh” and “OK” and “Sure” and, finally, “Enough already.”
Over the Manhattan Bridge, whitefaced songbird Martyn Jacques peeks out from a toy-theater proscenium and bemoans the fate of one Augustus who wastes away because he will not eat his soup. Jacques trills, “Look at him, now the fourth day’s come!/He scarcely weighs a sugar-plum;/He’s like a little bit of thread./And, on the fifth day . . . he was—dead! Dead! Dead! Dead! Dead!” Jacques assaults his accordion and the audience cheers the kindertod.
Both the Wooster Group’s House/Lights and Shockheaded Peter originally debuted for limited runs in 1999 and are currently enjoying original-cast revivals. If they’ve aged at all, the marks aren’t showing. Each takes a set of non-canonical and not inherently humorous texts and manages to sculpt them into uproarious, if very macabre, performance pieces.
House/Lights results from a misalliance between Gertrude Stein’s 1938 libretto and Joseph P. Mawra’s 1964 film, an s/m opus about prostitutes-cum-jewel smugglers entitled Olga’s House of Shame. If Doctor Faustus appears more accessible than most of Stein’s work, it’s still sufficiently abstruse. Lines are not apportioned to particular characters; punctuation goes AWOL. The narrative—what little there is—slinks back upon itself. Similarly, Olga’s House relies less on dialogue than on crude voice-overs and tight blouses.
Director Elizabeth LeCompte assigns all of Stein’s text to Valk, who dispenses with the words in a fast-paced purr. Ultimately, the Stein rhymes and the Mawra plot become ancillary to the visual and aural net LeCompte weaves around them—an unusual language of set clangs, musical snatches, spasmodic choreography, film footage, live video, seesawing loading platforms, even the bleats and squawks of a 520 PowerBook.
Shockheaded Peter also uses extratextual elements to enliven its script. The Tiger Lillies, a three-man affair of accordion, double bass, percussion, and odd facial hair, provide music for this “junk opera” based on Heinrich Hoffman’s 1844 cautionary children’s book Struwwelpeter (literally “Slovenly Peter,” further proof that the Germans have a word for everything). Narrated by a greasy-pated emcee (Julian Bleach), the piece concerns nasty children coming to nastier ends.
If House/Lights exploits up-to-the-minute machinery, Shockheaded Peter revels in its pre-technological effects. The mustaches, petticoats, and trapdoors of Victorian music halls figure prominently as do the cardboard props and puppet figures of 19th-century toy theaters. (Jacques’s jaunty tunes and castrato delivery defy era.)
Though the productions don’t include the traditional hallmarks of comedy—recognizable characters, amusing stories, lack of a death toll—both nevertheless succeed in wringing laughs. Never mind that House/ Lights results in the murder of a boy and a dog, not to mention a positive orgy of horsewhipping. Forget that Shockheaded Peter sings its final song amid a graveyard of kiddie-sized headstones. Both set the spectators roaring. In his 1900 essay “Laughter,” Henri Bergson argues, “Comedy can only begin at the point where our neighbor’s personality ceases to affect us. It begins with . . . a growing callousness to social life.” We might worry ourselves sick at the implications or we might simply concur with Shockheaded Peter‘s sinister emcee: “Sometimes we have to be cruel to be kind. And sometimes we have to be cruel . . . well, you know . . . for recreational purposes.”