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MIND YOUR MANNERS ... OR 'SHOCKHEADED PETER' WILL GET YOU!

Byline: Reed Johnson Staff Writer

Shhhh! Listen hard and you may hear them, the gruesome hobgoblins and shabby boogeymen that rattle around in the basement of Phelim McDermott's imagination.

His china-blue eyes have a look of peaceful innocence, but don't let McDermott fool you: This guy's got an incurable case of the heebie- jeebies. His ooky-spooky childhood sounds like something out of Tim Burton's next screenplay. Say a name that strikes terror in young hearts - Cruella de Vil, for instance - and McDermott, 37, practically turns giddy with remembered fear and pleasure.

``There's something strong, there's something potent,'' the pale, puckish Englishman says with an appreciable shiver, though the weather outside his Wilshire Boulevard publicist's office is typical L.A. - sun-drenched and seasonably mild.

``I don't really know that I can put it into words. But there were certain books when I was a kid that I used to look at, and I used to go back to and open the pages, and go, 'Aaaggh!' and shut it! I think it's because they talk about things that aren't supposed to be talked about - violence, whatever. And that's what the world's like. It's out there.''

It's also tucked into the murky nooks and crannies of ``Shockheaded Peter,'' the gleefully macabre ``junk opera,'' co-directed by McDermott and Julian Crouch that opens a two-week run tonight at UCLA's Freud Playhouse.

Inspired by ``The Struwwelpeter (Slovenly Peter),'' a whimsical 1844 work by the German psychiatrist Heinrich Hoffman, ``Shockheaded Peter'' is a high-spirited musical parody of those Victorian cautionary tales about the torments and terrors that await disobedient children (such as its high-haired namesake).

Don't play with matches! Stop fidgeting! Eat your soup or you'll waste away! Don't suck your thumbs or a scary man with a huge pair of scissors will come snip them off!

In ``Shockheaded Peter,'' each morally erring youngster who violates these parental commandments meets a ghastly, untimely fate, depicted in stylized, Grand Guignol violence that elicit both screams and laughter from the audience.

Narrated by a cadaverous emcee (Bleach), the show is set to the eerily gloating tunes of the Tiger Lillies, a three-piece band (squeezebox, bass and drums). Five actors, some alarmingly humanlike puppets and low-tech sets and costumes conjure a cartoonish horrorscape filled with trapdoors and optical tricks.

Originally staged in northern England in 1997, ``Shockheaded Peter'' recently played in Washington, D.C., where one reviewer deemed it ``as brilliant as it is devilish ... think David Lynch doing children's theater.''

Indeed, while the show may well be too intense and conceptually sophisticated for very young children, McDermott observes that there's always been a substantial grownup audience for books and movies about nasty things happening to rebellious tykes. He points to the scarifying oeuvre of the late American author/illustrator Edward Gorey, a version of whose ``The Gashlycrumb Tinies'' McDermott once brought to the stage.

``I'm sure that Edward Gorey was influenced by the Hoffman (book),'' says McDermott, a pleasant, personable chap who seems perpetually on the lookout for surprises. ``Also, the Tim Burton (movie) 'Edward Scissorhands' is again sort of tapping into that myth.''

McDermott began tapping such mythic primal power while growing up in Manchester, where his family lived in a former vicarage he says was briefly haunted by a poltergeist that ``kind of threw objects around.''

That otherworldly encounter engendered a previous show, the critically acclaimed ``70 Hill Lane,'' which was produced at San Diego's La Jolla Playhouse a few seasons back.

``That show was kind of looking at that part of my childhood, which was quite isolated,'' he says. ``I didn't go out and sort of do what other kids do. I was quite quiet and hidden away, and spent a lot of time with books and fantasizing around those things.''

Next month, the La Jolla will host a second show, ``Lifegame,'' put together by the Improbable Theatre, the London-based company of which McDermott is artistic director. A big London hit, ``Lifegame'' uses actors, puppets and musicians to build an original, improvised show around the life of a different, pre-selected audience member for each performance.

``He's a very bright, very talented young artist who's got a rich career ahead of him,'' La Jolla Playhouse artistic director Anne Hamburger says of McDermott.

Growing up in Manchester, a city better-known for its soccer stars and mopey pop bands than its actors, theater proved to be McDermott's escape hatch from his hermetically sealed youth.

His parents took him frequently to the Royal Exchange in Manchester and to Royal Shakespeare Company performances.

After graduating from Middlesex Polytechnic, he went on to study improvisational theater, took a couple of workshops with legendary mime master Jacques Lecoq, and began doing solo improv in pubs.

Before hooking up with Improbable Theatre's other core members, Crouch and Lee Simpson, McDermott also worked extensively in the British regional theater, directing plays like ``The Servant of Two Masters'' and ``The Government Inspector.''

One of his goals with Improbable has been to combine improv's spontaneous inventiveness with the strong narrative line of more traditional theater.

``Anything we create (has) got to have a gap for the audience to dream into,'' he says. ``I would say that that's what we try and do, all our shows. If you go and see a show that hasn't got a gap in it, you kind of sit back from it. Because you've not got any job to do. The story's been told.''

The Facts

--What: ``Shockheaded Peter.''

--Where: Freud Playhouse, UCLA, Westwood.

--When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 5 and 10 p.m. Saturdays, 8 p.m. Sundays; tonight through May 28.

--Tickets: $35; $15 for UCLA students with valid ID. Call (310) 825-2101 or visit www.cto.ucla.edu.

CAPTION(S):

3 photos

Photo:

(1 -- 2) ``Shockheaded Peter,'' above and right, the comically gruesome ``junk opera,'' was a smash hit in London and New York. The gleefully macabre show, co-directed by Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch, opens a two-week run tonight at UCLA's Freud Playhouse.

(3) The Tiger Lillies provide gloating musical accompaniment in ``Shockheaded Peter.''
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Title Annotation:L.A. Life
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:May 11, 2000
Words:1007
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