It never fails that a visit to Open Eye Figure Theatre conjures distant memories of “The Moppet Players.” That troupe, which evolved into Children’s Theatre Company, captivated audiences with constant inventiveness and a patina of old world charm.
“Strumply Peter,” which opened last weekend at the Minneapolis playhouse, is the latest illustration. Conceived and directed by Michael Sommers, with music by Eric Jensen and text by Josef Evans, the tiny show rummages through the story of an elfin sprite who mixes life up for young children.
The tale, by Heinrich Hoffmann, also inspired “Shockheaded Peter,” the cult “Junk Opera” that Britain’s Improbable Theatre brought to Minneapolis in 2000 and later staged in the West End. Hoffmann, a 19th-century German doctor, wrote “Struwwelpeter” about a lad with frazzled hair and foot-long, gnarly fingernails.
At Open Eye, Noah Sommers Haas (son of Sommers and artistic director Sue Haas) nimbly jumps up from beneath the floorboards to announce himself. Looking a fright, Peter gives off the whiff of a whimsical “Sweeney Todd” for the juvenile set, whisking off two puppet toddlers to be made into a cake.
Haas gets help from Liz Schachterle, Tara Loeper and Keith Lester as buffoonish fairy tale types. Loeper’s “Cry Baby” can’t keep her eyes in their sockets, and Lester looks like a rag doll (though pretty stout) as the Lamenting Mother.
The beauty of this piece rests in Sommers’ natural affinity for a middle-European aesthetic in stage design and puppetry. Miniature houses tilt with medieval wear, trapdoors and windows are fit into paneled walls that look like gingerbread. One story pertains to a boy who won’t eat his soup, and a series of puppets show a nice fat “Frederick,” then a thinner version until finally a string puppet represents the results of not eating.
Jensen plays his own music at the piano. It bounces along in recitative, rarely calling attention to itself. The notable exception is a song in which Loeper sings “We Sail Away,” while Schachterle rows a boat across the tiny stage.
Admittedly, at just about an hour, “Strumply Peter” can’t reveal much depth — and fairy tales by nature cloak dimension in slim portraits. Yet, the problem here is that “Strumply” is not sharply drawn. Sommers and Evans seem unwilling to commit to a strong sense of mission for the character. Is he mischievously punishing or sympathetically coddling these children? It’s a little of both, which in itself might be interesting, but the script doesn’t make a convincing case. The play can stall out in static narration on occasion — moments that falter because Strumply doesn’t have a lot to say.
These problems suggest only that “Strumply Peter” should be enjoyed for what it is: a little visual gem that unlocks old memories of fairy tales and genuine, homemade theater. This is one of the rare occasions when the sum of atmosphere and iconography is indeed greater than the flawed parts.