Count Karlstein, Runamuck Productions, at WNEP Theater. My father had a peculiar way of punishing me when I was a small child: he’d crack open the family’s worn copy of Struwwelpeter at bedtime and read me stories about bad little boys and girls who were burned to a crisp or had their fingers chopped off. Afterward, I’d lie awake in bed, terrified, while he sat downstairs laughing his ass off over a doughnut and a cup of coffee. A morbid sense of humor isn’t common among small children; appreciation of the perverse generally comes after puberty. That’s why the Grimms’ fairy tales, Tim Burton’s movies, and Edward Gorey’s books were all designed with adults in mind.
The Runamuck Productions adaptation of Philip Pullman’s gothic melodrama Count Karlstein–a dimly lit, haunting fever dream about an evil Swiss count who offers his two nieces to a demon spirit for ritual sacrifice–caters first and foremost to adults. With its complex themes of murder, revenge, and the occult, it doesn’t quite work as a children’s theater production. Of course the children in it ultimately triumph, as the adult characters are justly–and hilariously–exposed as buffoons. But that moral remained obscure to many of the children in the audience, whose cries of “I’m scared!” were audible throughout the performance. My father would have been proud.