"This Ship Has Sailed, But the Magic Still Lives!"
J. M. Barrie believed fiercely in the wisdom of children. “I am not young enough to know everything,” he once wrote. In his book, “Peter Pan,” Barrie created a figure not unlike himself, a nameless orphan who never had the chance to be a child, happily trapped in perpetual boyhood. So when Peter lands in the window of Wendy’s bedroom, we are all entranced. But, many of us have wondered at one time or another, where did this magical flying boy come from?
That answer lies within Inland Valley Repertory Theatre’s “Peter and the Starcatcher,” just finishing their run November 6th at the prestigious Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater in Claremont, a larky séance play featuring many of Barrie’s mythical characters, presented in part pantomime, part story theatre, but altogether delightful. This well-told tale, with book by Rick Elise and music by Wayne Barker, is superbly directed by Gary Krinke (“Footloose,”“Jesus Christ, Superstar”) and is based on the 2004 novel by Dave Barry (yes! That Dave Barry) and Ridley Pearson.
Opening on Broadway in 2012 after a preview at La Jolla Playhouse, it was fashioned as a prequel to Peter’s adventures with the Darling family — how Peter got his name and his flying mojo, how Captain Hook lost his hand, and how the crocodile got its tick-tock. It also introduces us to a piquant array of new characters, including the marauding denizens of Mollusk Island, who speak a patois composed entirely of war cries gleaned from Italian menus and wine lists — “Gnocchi! Cannoli!” Other nautical gibberish such as Dodo and Norse Code are also spoken in the play. “Furrow the jib and let fly the frammistan!” one old salt shouts.
“Peter and the Starcatcher” is an amazing, farcical journey, set to a minimalist stage, but spectacle, wit, and joy spill out of it like treasure from a magic pocket. A cast of fourteen (including one sole female), a couple of trunks, and a versatile length of rope yield more storytelling than most oversize spectaculars can manage. There’s a naval battle, an island full of savages, and a mermaid chorus, and all the trappings look as if they can fit inside a conch shell.
The charm of the storytelling in the show is as important as the story itself. Barrie saw children as carefree and innocent, and even somewhat heartless — to be at once naïve, knowing, and playful. “Use your thoughts,” a character advises the audience, which is made to see things that aren’t there. In this scintillating game of show-and-tell (which is supported by the quirky genius of Mark Mackenzie’s scenic design and Gary and Linda Krinke’s costumes), toy ships become real ones, banana leaves become pirate shields, ropes become windows or waves, and auto dealer pennant flags become the maw of a behemoth crocodile; even the most basic yellow rubber gloves are transformed into flitting tropical birds, or even a pixie!
As far as aerial stunts, there is no free flight through the Candlelight. The boy Peter (Hayden Mangum) does get to the point of takeoff, but never actually flies in the show, although the Director’s many inventive visual transformations banish gravity so adroitly that we feel as though he does.
In one scene, the perky and patrician Molly (who later becomes the mother of Wendy), played by Haley Rubin, after falling ever so slightly for Peter on board the pirate ship, gives him a word of encouragement: “To have faith is to have wings.”
She then ingests a liberal dose of her father's “Starstuff,” crosses her legs and proceeds to levitate before our eyes “Jeannie-Style,” at least for a second — a piece of astonishment that is manufactured in plain sight by the help of a couple of actors pushing down on the opposite end of the plank she is sitting on.
For most of the play, which begins in Victorian England in 1885, Peter is known only as the Boy, a name that signals his psychological emptiness. Without parents, he has never been named. Whipped, abandoned, sold into slavery, and totally deprived of self, he has experienced a kind of soul murder. “I hate, I hate, I hate grownups!” the Boy says, with ample justification. He is one of three filthy orphans— the other two are Prentiss (Taylor Bjur) and Ted (Michael Buczynski) — collectively labeled “The Lost Boys,” and referred to by the pirates who abuse them as “mules,” “food for snakes,” “garbage,” and “pigs.”
Never seeing the light of day, their impoverishment is so severe that when Molly finds her way down to the bottom deck, she offers to read them a bedtime story. But they don’t know what she means: they’ve never had a bed. Molly apologizes for her insensitivity, but the Boy interrupts with words that bring her and the audience up short: “You say ‘sorry’ so easy, like the rough patch is smoothed over, no hard feelings, and everything’s fixed. Well, no. There’s a mass of darkness in the world, and if you get trapped in that cave like us, it beats you down. ‘Sorry’ can’t fix it.” This strategic speech — the Boy’s only real moment of eloquence — keeps the hurt at the center of the high jinks. It also mightily raises the stakes of the play.
Molly and her father carry amulets filled with magic “Starstuff,” which has the power to break the oldest of nature’s laws. This is the “MacGuffin” that finally liberates the Boy from what weighs him down. It is released into the sea when the pirate ship capsizes, and the Boy, who can’t swim, paddles on Molly’s trunk to Mollusk Island. The Starstuff allows an array of local fish along the way to mutate into mermaids, mostly of the hairy-chested, bearded, hula-skirted variety. With a nod to “South Pacific” in the Act II opener (the music is by Bill Wolfe, with solid assistance on percussion by Alan Waddington), the burly mermaids, decked out with shiny green bottom fins, plush wigs and ample upper extremeties warble amid excruciating side pain from laughter. “We’ll never be fish again, because Starstuff made a mermaid outta me!... It makes you what you wanna be!”
Of course, the Boy’s exploits wouldn’t be memorable without an archenemy. The pirate captain Black Stache (Chris Russo), that tall, dark-headed guy who’s been blending into the background during the last few scenes, that dyslexic prince of darkness, that whirlwind of menace and malaprops with all swash and no buckle, is straight out of pantomime heaven. “Now you’re likely wondering, can the fellow before you be entirely evil? Can no compassion uncrease this furrowed brew?” he says. “Brow,” his piratical lieutenant, Smee (Preston Helms), interrupts.
As written, Stache is effete but gracefully clumsy as pirates go, a compendium of comic influences: he owes his angular outline and his “face foliage” to Groucho, his bravura ignorance to Kevin Kline’s character in “A Fish Called Wanda,” and his foppish swagger to Tim Curry in “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” Add a touch of DNA from a young Alan Rickman, and you've got Mr. Russo pegged on the button.
Stache’s jokes work the delicious trick of mocking the adult world while staying in the realm of child’s play. He declares a hidden treasure chest “as elusive as a Philip Glass opera.” When it proves to be empty, he pronounces it as “clean as the sheets in a convent.” Stache, who lives by the pirate code of “one for all and all for me,” finally accepts the name the mermaid gave Peter and tries to win him over to his nasty pirate crew. “You need to connect, Peter,” he says. “No man is an archipelago.”
When, in a fury at the empty chest, Stache inadvertently slams the lid down on his own hand, he gets in a full minute’s worth of mugging, before accusing Peter of “single-handedly” rendering him “single-handed.” “You cut your hand off, not me,” Peter protests. “Oh, pity the child who lives in a fact-based world!” Stache replies, clambering onto the chest in agonizing pain. “You may think my ship has sailed, but I have an armada of options at my former fingertips.”
Mr. Russo is as hammy, plummy and delicious as a Christmas dinner from Charles Dickens. And how he turns three words (“oh my God”) into a show-stopping aria is something you have to see to believe. But then, all the humor is fairly sub-adolescent, with the sort of groaning puns and flatulence jokes that schoolboys have always found irresistible. But there’s infectious art in how these cast members convey the primal joy for such idiocy. Deeper still is the chords they are sounding within us that we don’t even know are there: our hunger for certain kinds of fables and types of heroes and villains, and the wonderment of a flying orphan, invented more than a century ago, that continues to loom large in our imaginations even still.
Much praise to the cast that becomes not only whatever individual characters are called for but also the settings through which they move: two different boats (and their mysterious inner compartments), an itinerant jungle and, most spectacularly, a heaving ocean that splits and devours the Neverland, and makes even James Cameron’s “Titanic” look strictly two-dimensional.
None of this could be achieved if the actors didn’t have a level of synchronicity and reciprocal trust that you associate with master ballet troupes. As the cast members take turns delivering the narrative, the others instantly assume the myriad shapes and guises being described. It’s the most exhilarating example of locomotive storytelling on stage, well…ever!
Costumes were designed by Gary and Linda Krinke, Choreography was by Kim Eberhardt, Assistant Director was Hope Kaufman and Wig and Hair Design was by Kirklyn Robinson. Lighting Design was by Caleb Shiba, Sound Design was by Nick Galvan, Production Manager was Bobby Collins and Stage Manager was Mia Mercado.
Additional cast included Tucker Boyes in the incredible drag role of Mrs. Brumbake (and the Teacher), Steve Siegel as Alf, Garrett Henry Smith in dual roles of Slank and Hawking Clam, Bryan Richardson in multiple roles of Grempkin, Sanchez, Mack and Fighting Prong. Tony Collins was exceptional as Lord Leonard Aster, John Nisbet was extraordinary as Cpt. Robert Falcon Scott (who took a lot of abuse), and Reilly Jimenez and Nathanial Vogel rounded out the ensemble with their animated antics.
As for any flying that might be expected from a Peter Pan story, well, it mainly involves a cat that looks like something pulled out of the laundry hamper. “We ask you now to imagine a grown cat in flight,” says one ensemble member, while others add, sequentially: “Of course the boys don’t have to imagine. Because they are there…and there’s the cat…and the cat is definitely flying.”
Flashing back to metacarpally-challenged Stache as the play closes, we find him giving Peter a stern warning to watch out for his return. “For just when you least expect it, there I’ll be! The Stache, right under yer nose!” He starts to leave, then stops and turns to the audience…“Clap if you believe!” And we do.
The Show Report