nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
November 5, 2009
Peter/Wendy often feels like a favorite bedtime story—a familiar tale told by an inventive reader who uses lots of clever voices, skips over the boring bits, riffs a little on the familiar stuff to create a few surprises along the way, and ultimately closes the book exactly when expected. It has a few moments of beautiful theatrical magic, a well-used storytelling style, few confusing missteps, and some inconsistencies in tone that make it less effective than it could be. It's an enjoyable and charming retelling of the children's classic, performed by an interestingly international, energetic young cast, but it's not a genuinely original reinvention.
Director Jeremy Bloom's adaptation, using only Barrie's language (so that sometimes characters narrate and sometimes have actual dialogue from their own scenes), focuses in on a few key relationships from the familiar tale of children running away to Neverland: Peter Pan and Wendy most centrally (the other Darling children, John and Michael, have disappeared entirely), but also Mr. and Mrs. Darling in Wendy's absence, Peter and Princess Tiger Lily, and the pirate crew's internal dynamics. Other threads—the Lost Boys and their ambivalent relationship with Wendy, Tinker Bell's jealousy, Pan's longstanding vendetta with Hook—are more submerged, appearing in traces and ghosts but not really being developed; instead, Bloom weaves in other elements of Peter Pan's origin mythology from The Little White Bird, a lesser-known work of J.M. Barrie's. Bloom succeeds well at capturing the pathos and sheer strangeness of Pan—the heartlessness that comes from refusal to embrace responsibility of any kind, the bravery, the excitement—and the inability of Wendy to really understand him.
The moments that work best use inventive theatrical techniques or imagery to add a level of resonant subtext to the story; they don't always fit literally into the story, but they add something special. The Lost Boys are here played by a trio of actors (Mike Placito, Kyle Warren, and Amanda Bloom) who mostly perform with their eyes closed and eerie cartoon-like eyes drawn with makeup on the lids; they're blind, or possibly sleepwalking, but preternaturally aware, an unusual and creepy way to depict what are essentially feral children. The flying scenes are done very cleverly, and all in different ways, to give a series of believably magical moments of levitation. Two gorgeously rich-voiced singers (Maite Alvarez and S.G. Welbourn) add an eerie emotional undercurrent to certain sequences.
Some of the performances, too, are inventive and surprising. Christopher Heijl is a wonderful Peter Pan, both a delightfully innocent little boy in a man's body and an utterly amoral savage. Holly Chou, as the perpetually frustrated Tinker Bell, forced to communicate mostly in fairy chatter with her only English line frequently being "You silly ass," and Courtney Zbinden as Tiger Lily both have unusual, fascinating movement qualities. And Claire Neumann as the pirate sidekick Smee is very, very funny.
But there were some adaptation choices that I didn't really understand (for one, the Indian princess Tiger Lily appears to have become a very literal flower, with a court of lilacs), and the tone sometimes seems to waver between sardonic comment on Peter Pan and a genuine imaginative engagement with it. All the language, of course, is Barrie's, so the commentary is authentic to the original—but it's hard to get the audience in the right state of mind to clap with belief in fairies (to save Tinker Bell's life) when certain characters and portrayals seem to be dryly satirizing the kind of fairy-tale embodied here. A lot of the pirate scenes, in particular, seemed to be played with a kind of deadpan that didn't always fit into the rest of the piece.
For a story that seems likely to be dependent on elaborate effects—Flying! Pirate ships! Mermaids!—Peter/Wendy does a remarkable job of creating its atmosphere with the barest-bones of tools: no theatrical lighting, only table lamps and garden floodlights; all the performers in pajamas; a few pieces of fabric, two chairs, and a slatted window blind for a set. Its commitment to the purest elements of theatre is refreshing, and commendable.