Problem Child

Courtesy Dream Theater

Did you suck your thumbs as a child? Even if you didn’t, imagine being a thumb-sucking child. Then, imagine seeing images of other thumb-suckers having their thumbs brutally removed from their hands and devoured.  If you were a character in Dream Theatre’s upcoming play, “Devilish Children and the Civilizing Process,” this would be your fate.

Less than a week before opening night, the interior of Dream Theatre was beginning to resemble a 19th century nightmare. The theater, normally left as-is for productions, had been made over to be a very different  space. Rotting brown “curtains” lined the sides of the arena, leaving no images of pleasantry to the imagination.

Flash back to 19th century Germany, where a psychiatrist named Heinrich Hoffmann is teaching his son manners. Being of a creative bent, Hoffmann decides to write his son a book. The book is a collection of gruesome cautionary tales geared towards children: a boy who goes outside during a storm is swept away to his doom when wind catches his umbrella, a healthy boy who will not eat his soup wastes away and dies, etc. These tales were extremely well received by Hoffmann’s son and the German public.

“Devilish Children” is loosely based on these tales. Rather than staging Hoffman’s stories individually, the play weaves them together into a Dickensian drama. Dream Theatre has been converted into a school for naughty children–the theater stage has become the schoolyard. Set at Christmas, the story follows a three-year-old boy named Karl who, like many other children, is left at the school because of what his parents consider to be extraordinarily bad manners–he is a thumb-sucker who cries, doesn’t listen to his parents, and gets into a fight with another boy. There, the “devilish children” who run the schoolyard teach him what will happen to him if he keeps up his nasty habits by acting out plays based on Hoffman’s tales.

Dream Theatre is known for their philosophy of breaking the fourth wall and including audience members in their plays. This play is no different. To add to the experience, the entire play was written in verse that is reminiscent of nursery rhymes. According to Jeremy Menekseoglu, the writer and director of “Devilish Children,” entering the theater will be like “walking into a haunted house…[and] being left in there.”

“Devilish Children” is part puppet show, part fairy tale, part pantomime, with some melodrama thrown in, as described by Menekseoglu. “We take you down as deep into hell as we can,” he says, “and then we see if we can come back.” The play features elements of a horror show, but the audience is promised more than  “just images of torture and death” although those will not be absent from the play.

On the surface, “Devilish Children” may appear to be a typical Halloween spectacle–after all, it has all of the elements of a Tim Burton film. But when taken as a whole, “Devilish Children” is a fable about innocence, learning, and forgiveness. The children in the play are abandoned; their parents leave them in what is essentially an orphanage for minor offenses. The play shows the extremes of parents and children at odds, a theme that everyone can relate to, even if they haven’t been subjected to torture.

There will “not [be] a moment of safety” for audience members once they enter the theater, says Menekseoglu. Watch out for the ventriloquist ticket taker’s murderous puppet on your way in.

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