By Philip Pearce
WITH ALL THOSE FLOATING GONDOLAS and flying chandeliers late 20th century Broadway offered us hydraulic theatre at its slickest. But early 21st century Broadway seems to be evolving into a riskier age of athletic theatre. More and more it’s all up to the actors. With minimal props and no scenery, Simon Stephens’ prizewinning stage adaptation of Mark Haddon’s Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time features eleven performers whose bodies create settings, set up and take down usable doorways, operate together as a moving passenger train—do physically whatever the script requires at the moment it’s required. They’re on stage not so much as detailed character studies than as active elements in a story-telling structure.
It’s much the same with the show Pacific Rep has just opened at the Golden Bough. There is scenery and the complicated plot deals with characters we’ve met long ago in children’s fiction. And these characters are involved in adventures harking back to the reign of Queen Victoria. But the pervading spirit of can-do improv makes this a very modern play. John Farmanesh-Bocca cleverly directs twelve gifted local actors performing more than thirty roles in an inspired swashbuckling spoof called Peter and the Starcatcher.
Peter is the name eventually given to an angry, repressed, silent and nameless orphan, played by Aaron Kitchin with a brooding sensitivity that contrasts nicely with the bounce and explosive activity of everybody else on stage. He’s one of a trio of workhouse orphans who gets sold to a sea captain as unpaid deckhands aboard a ship called The Neverland. Not surprisingly, the embittered thirteen-year-old boy is convinced that all adults are sadistic liars, so he doesn‘t ever want to grow up. His salvation is the starcatcher of the title, a feisty upper class girl named Molly Aster, played with appealing energy and wit by the delightful Bri Slama. Molly evades her nanny and sneaks out of first-class and down into the hold, where, Wendy-like, she charms the three lost boys by telling them bedtime stories. Her energetic friendship, along with a lot of adventurous nonsense involving a sea-chest filled with stardust and a nervous trainee pirate named Black Stache, turns the orphaned loaner into an airborne daredevil called Peter Pan.
John Newkirk soars gloriously over the top as the blustering but scaredy-cat pirate king Black Stache. Proud of his moustache but struggling with a shaky self-image, Stache is the goofiest in a big roster of goofy characters and Newkirk plays him to the hilt. I was particularly delighted with the moment when, in a neat homage to a classic Marx Brothers routine, he preens in front of a framed mirror that seems at first to hold his strutting reflection—or is that a costumed double (Kitchin) who’s been trained to copy his every move? The fact that this struggling buccaneer has a sidekick named Smee, acted with high-powered smarmy aplomb by Jared W. Hussey, leaves little doubt that when the misused orphan becomes the bumptious Peter Pan, neurotic Stache will lose a hand and blossom into a nasty Captain Hook.
There are eight more actors, each with his own named character and place in the story. Scott McQuiston is wonderful as Molly’s starchy but romantically vulnerable governess Miss Brumbrake. Richard Boynton plays her grubby, flatulent but adoring seagoing suitor Alf. James Brady is Molly’s properly patriotic Victorian papa Lord Aster. Peter’s two orphan sidekicks are identically dressed but nicely individualized by Skip Kadish as the ambitious but clueless Prentiss and Stephen Poletti as the amiable chow-hound Ted. Then there is versatile Michael D. Jacobs in a series of roles, ranging from the sadistic orphanage manager to some pretty dastardly sailors. Bob Colter is also on hand, all fuss and frustration as a sneaky sailor named Slank who really starts the treasure hunt by switching two identical sea-chests.
Peter and the Starcatcher calls for the kind of ensemble work that allows little time for waiting in the wings till you’re cued for your next appearance. Your assigned character may be having a rest, but you are more than likely to be on stage as a roistering pirate or in a hilarious second-act chorus line of fin-waving mermaids.
The overall treasure hunt plot is clear and basic enough, but, if anything, Rick Elice’s adaptation of the Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson novel tricks it out with a few too many clever twists and turns. Act 1 lasts an hour, Act 2, 55 minutes. It’s all live and wonderfully energetic, but maybe goes on ten or twelve minutes too long.
It’s not really a kid’s show either, at least not for the very young. The script is loaded with clever wordplay, clean but tricky double-entendres, historic and literary references and challenging bits of foreign vocabulary. A family with two small girls seated next to me found it all too sophisticated and slipped out during the first act. But if you love the wit and wisdom of J. M. Barrie, as I do, and want to find out how Peter learned to fly and how Hook lost his hand, this is a loud, lively and satisfying evening of fun.
It continues at the Golden Bough through July 16th. Having mounted this funny prequel, PacRep will then offer a full-scale production of Peter Pan in the renovated outdoor Forest Theater opening August 17.