How to Set a Fire in a Crowded Theater
DON'T play with fire. It's a deep-rooted taboo, part of the wallpaper that hangs in the dark attic of childhood fears, along with not taking candy from strangers or running with scissors.
By LIESL SCHILLINGER
Published: February 20, 2005
play with fire. It's a deep-rooted taboo, part of the wallpaper that
hangs in the dark attic of childhood fears, along with not taking candy
from strangers or running with scissors. But in "Shockheaded Peter,"
Julian Crouch and Phelim McDermott's gleefully nightmarish
dramatization of German cautionary tales, a naughty little girl named
Harriet (Tamzin Griffin) can't resist the allure of a shiny box of
In the play, which opens Tuesday at the Little
Shubert Theater, Harriet wears a yellow and white pinafore over a
demure Victorian dress, and has blond braids, a ghastly white face,
dark-ringed eyes, a crimson mouth and fire-engine red ankle boots that
peek out beneath her petticoats. Striking a match, she sets her apron
string alight, she grabs at the cloth, trying to shake off the flame,
but tongues of red, yellow and orange fire climb up her dress, frothing
and rustling, enveloping her until she's completely consumed. Soon, all
that's left of her is a pile of ashes, and her red boots.
In this age of high-tech special effects, audiences have grown
used to prosthetics and cannily edited stunts that make imagination
unnecessary. But Harriet's transformation from baby doll to fireball -
which takes about 10 minutes - could not be more low-tech. The cascade
of flames is made up of cotton, satin and net, in red, white, orange
and yellow, sewn on with thread. The scene achieves its magic through
the power of suggestion.
"The beauty of it is the
simplicity of the effects," said Kevin Pollard, the show's makeup and
costume designer. "We had a very small budget, so I made everything I
could myself. I based Harriet around the idea of a Victorian child, a
little like Alice in Wonderland, but with black eyebrows, so she
immediately conjures that macabre image of Baby Jane."
"Everything needed to look rotten and broken down and shadowed,"
Mr. Pollard said. "The actors needed to seem as trapped in time as the
characters they were playing."