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Imagine for a moment, dear friends, you are flying high above the skies, seeing everything in plain sight, and you are in control of your own destiny. You manage to achieve the most against impossible odds. You're soaring high above your cares and woes of the day. You're free.
Now imagine for a moment, dear friends, that this same feeling of exhilaration can manifest itself in an evening at the theatre. Hard to imagine, since much theatre today is too focused on the cerebral and doesn't wow with spectacle or the essential ingredient of a moving show: a heartbeat.
Thankfully, PlayMakers Repertory Company is offering a moving and exhilarating production just in time for the holidays.
Peter and the Starcatcher is a re-imagining of the Peter Pan story. Now, bear with me: in a history of exhaustive adaptations and "re-imaginings," it may seem that there is nothing we can gain from yet another Peter Pan re-telling. But this show does so by stripping the tale down to the bare essentials of storytelling.
When the play begins, our characters are found telling and reenacting the story of the origins of Peter and his magic. The central character in this version is Molly (played by the wide-eyed and rebellious Arielle Yoder), whose sole mission in the show is to return a trunk filled with treasures from Queen Victoria to her father (the always magnificent Ray Dooley), who has been captured by pirates. While on the ship Neverland, Molly encounters two lost boys (played with petite innocence by Jorge Donoso and Daniel Bailin) and one she begins to fancy (a talented Evan Johnson in a winning portrayal). They all set out to find Molly's father, but plans change when they are forced overboard and flee to an uncharted island. Little do they know the pirates have followed them there, too.
These actors are resourceful in their telling of the story – using things like kitchen utensils as weapons, for instance, or having a cat be portrayed as a stuffed animal. The resourcefulness evokes the same enthusiasm and make-believe children would have if they were staging a production of Peter Pan in their own backyard.
The play lies at the intersection of the mind and the heart. As grown-ups watching, we are aware of the low-budget theatrics of the production. (I should note that this is on purpose, to give the play a more "from-the-ground-up," organic creation.) But by Act II, the theatrics have gone away and the story flourishes, with special spotlighting of creatively staged scenes that happen like, well, magic.
The production is unlike what PlayMakers typically offers. The original production, which began off-Broadway, lent itself to a smaller theater, which is perhaps why much of the "low-budget" qualities of the production work so well. However, director Brendon Fox has expanded the production to such extremes that the show holds an exhilaration that was lacking in its original run in New York. This is also the achievement of set designer McKay Coble, whose rotating playground gives actors the chance to bring out the kid in all of them as they climb and teeter on the catwalks above the audience. Xavier Pierce's striking lights and Holly Poe Durbin's costumes never distract from the action and heighten the play's drama and hilarity in stand-out parts (look for a La Cage Aux Folles-like number at the top of Act II that would make even Dame Edna blush). Mark Lewis' music direction and Casey Sams' choreography add just the right amount of showbiz flair to keep the play from faltering into deep, dark waters.
The real standouts in a production of highlights were the highly theatrical performances of Benjamin Curns, Brian Owen, and especially Mitchell Jarvis, who seemed to pick up the show's momentum once he entered. (I attribute some of the slow start to opening night jitters.) Jarvis' "Black Stache" monologue was as if Harvey Korman from Blazing Saddles played Captain Hook, hilariously over-the-top and with enough camp to satisfy any Carol Burnett fan.
The story of Peter relies heavily on our childhood remembrances of telling stories and dreaming as well as our relationship to grown-ups and how much we used to under-appreciate them until we each grew up to became one. It's inevitable, growing up, but we will never forget that feeling of being young, being a kid, being there as we dreamed of flying away. We still dream like that. PlayMakers' production reminds us of that feeling of flying. By the end of the show, you're soaring high above your cares and the woes of the day. Suddenly, you're free. Suddenly, you're home.
Peter and the Starcather continues through Saturday, December 12. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.