In keeping with the vision of STC’s new artistic director, Simon Godwin, plays made to appeal to parents and their children will become part of the annual line-up. This is nothing if not far-sighted, for where will the next generation of theatre goers come from if not from the youngsters who learn to put down their electronics long enough to experience live action on a stage?
Grumpy old Boomers like me may view this development with some alarm, as “family-friendly” tends to translate into “kids kicking the back of my seat”, but I’m willing to allow that there is a positive ulterior purpose involved.
First in the roster is that beloved of classic tales, “Peter Pan.” Well, not quite. This is “Peter Pan and Wendy”, an adaptation by Lauren Gunderson which mostly follows J.M. Barrie’s story. All the great characters are there including Nana (played by the genuine dog actor, Bailey) and the best – and probably largest – puppet crocodile you’ll ever see on stage.
As Peter Pan is the boy who won’t or can’t grow up, so “Peter Pan” is the story that will never die, regardless of what form it takes. Since its 1904 introduction on stage, it has become a novel, several movies, a Disney cartoon, and countless professional, community, and high school productions with varying degrees of success. Having the full force of the STC resources behind it, we expected something truly magical of this incarnation.
As everyone knows, the story juxtaposes one world with another: fantasy with reality, childhood with adulthood, Neverland with London. Neverland is “that magic place where children play forever”, where Peter Pan lives in perpetuity. He also entices real children to come to his world of Lost Boys to do battle with the forces of evil, such as they are – Captain Hook and his dastardly brigands.
Alan Paul directs with an eye for maintaining the elements we come for, chiefly the flight-from-reality pleasures of revisiting a childhood favorite. Lauren Gunderson’s adaptation, however, squarely reminds us that we are in the twenty-first century and, therefore, in need of some consciousness raising.
To that end, the always self-possessed big sister, Wendy, (Sinclair Daniel) is not nearly as interested in going to finishing school or being a mother as she is in following in Marie Curie’s scientific footsteps. Nevertheless, she is the authority figure to brothers John (Christopher Flaim) and Michael (Chauncey Chestnut) and shares with them her enthusiasm for scientific discovery. This angle doesn’t prevent her from sewing Peter’s errant shadow on his feet or learning to fly, and, science-minded or not, she is still the primary target of Tinkerbell’s wrath.
On the other hand, Tiger Lily (Isabella LaBlanc) of the Neverland Indigenous People appears to have been dipped in a gallon of Girl Power, and her stormy tirades about “colonialism” come tediously close to lecturing the audience. What is most jarring about this choice is that Neverland, by definition, is an imaginary place that belongs to whoever dreams it. Far more interesting is the boy wonder himself, Peter Pan, (played with appropriately cocky mischief by Justin Mark) his Lost Boys, and Captain Hook and the pirates.
Mr. and Mrs. Darling (Derek Smith and Jenni Barber) do their part as conventional Edwardian parents tucking in the children and going to a dinner party, but return with zest as Captain Hook and Tinkerbell. Hook, the power-mad martinet of the seas dressed in silk and raving about Peter Pan (and yes, I did notice the large blond hair) has an irresistible humor about him, but only because we’re not his target.
As for Tinkerbell, I’m so jealous. This is who I want to be in my fantasy life, especially if I can wear Loren Shaw’s splendid costumes. Tink is fully, unabashedly, brazenly jealous of anyone who comes too close to Peter (especially little Edwardian girls named “Wendy”) and has no shame about trying to get them killed or lost in space. What a hoot Ms. Barber makes of this role!
Thanks to Jason Sherwood’s scrumptiously detailed scene design, we’re taken from the high-ceilinged bedroom of the Darling children to the night sky and on to Neverland. Dreams end and children grow up and the story comes back to where it began – in the Darling children’s room where an exact toy replica of the island sits quietly on the bedroom floor.
Maggie Lawrence is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association. She is a retired English and drama teacher.
WANT TO GO?
What: “Peter Pan and Wendy”
Where: Shakespeare Theatre Co., Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F St. NW, Washington, D.C.
Call: (202) 547-1122 or visit shakespearetheatre.org
Playing through January 12, 2020