The British company 1927 has titled its show with an overly familiar phrase that unfortunately gives no clue to the invention, precision, and joyous theatricality of its work. The four principals combine mime, music, film, and narration into an intoxicating mix of 10 twisted stories and some nifty fillers that evoke the gruesome fairy tales of Shockheaded Peter. Evil lurks everywhere in the world that 1927 conjures up, even among the most seemingly innocent and mundane events. There’s no false sentiment here about childhood. If you see a little girl in a pinafore, you’d better run for your life. There are three performers in 1927, all in whiteface and looking like mimes and behaving like silent film creations from Chaplin or Lloyd or the Hal Roach studios. Pianist Lillian Henley, in black and a beret, plays an upright throughout the evening, setting the tone with bright melody or ominous minor chords. Suzanne Andrade, with a black Louise Brooks bob, is writer and director as well as performer. The stories need a dry wit to work, and both she and her co-star, red-haired Esme Appleton, show a devilish sense of humor, as well as a breadth of talent. (During one story Appleton plays a glockenspiel, and the costumes she has designed, almost all in neutrals, suggest an interwar period of boarding houses, aproned mothers, lace-trimmed clothing, and strict social mores).
The two women deliver cautionary tales of actions that have fire-and-brimstone consequences. One is about gingerbread men revolting and attacking a baker with icing guns (“The streets run red with raspberry jam”), and another, which might have been penned by Edward Gorey, focuses on two neighbors in a lethal rivalry over topiary gardening.
Paul Barritt, the fourth and equally crucial collaborator, has created the company’s projections. The fillers are two-dimensional cartoons, variations on a theme: two women see a body lying in a room and try to help it, but as soon as they grab hold of the arms, it turns into the devil, and they are dragged away to hell; at another time they are on a boat, and a drowning man they attempt to save turns into Old Scratch and they end up in the briny. (The latter, presumably, is the source of the title.)
But more often the projections, which have been given the blips and marks of vintage silents, work in tandem with Andrade and Appleton, who have adapted themselves with clockwork timing to the cartoons and tableaux projected behind them. In “The Nine Lives of Choo Choo le Chat,” for instance, the various demises of the cat are catalogued, and score is kept on a projected chalkboard. The loss of one feline life comes amid an Old West attack by Indians. As the doomed cat stands amid arrows arching back and forth, one two-dimensional arrow suddenly pierces her three-dimensional skull in Steve Martin style. At another moment Choo Choo holds a carmine umbrella that attracts projected lightning, and zap! Catastrophe.
Barritt’s brilliant work occasionally includes assemblages of old photographs. In an episode called “The Lodger,” one sees the character’s room through a keyhole; a roach scuttles around; and some kind of liquid seems to run down the front of the picture. Combined with the eerie, underplayed narration of two little girls spying on the lodger, the result is unsettling laughter. “The lodger arrived without warning at an unsociable hour,” one girl intones. “He was a French man who didn’t appear to speak any English, or any French.”
Another episode, “The Grandmother,” includes audience participation, and the audience member who is hijacked disappears into the projection dressed as grandma and endures onscreen ordeals at the hands of the twin girls. It's a tribute to the high order of the live performance, music, and projection that one worries about the fate of the shanghaied participant inside the film. The macabre delights in this show won't surprise anyone who knows the offbeat companies that P.S. 122 presents. Here's another winner.