J.M. Barrie’s oft-performed 1904 play Peter Pan, gets a new production in Douglas Irvine’s new adaptation at the Arden Theatre Company. Irvine — like Barrie, a Scotsman — heads the Scottish children’s theater company Visible Fictions.
This is the Arden’s 20th annual children’s-theater holiday slot, and as always, the company's holiday show receives resources equaling its adult productions. A proven director, Whit MacLaughlin of New Paradise Laboratories, leads this professional cast and its top-notch designers.
Peter Pan has delighted people of all ages for over a century on film, onstage, as a musical, and more. Nevertheless, every time I endure another version, I’m unable to fathom why the story of a boy who refuses to grow up charms everyone but me. Peter rejects a normal life, yet enlists tween girl Wendy to be his mother, taking her to Neverland to parent his brood of Lost Boys.
Within minutes of meeting Peter, Wendy wants to kiss him; in Neverland, she casts him as “Father,” her husband watching over the boys, but he rejects the notion. What would Freud make of this?
Even in Irvine’s sanitized script, the story frequently refers to killing and death. Peter says of his victims, “I forget them after I kill them.” Really, what are we — especially children — supposed to take from this?
On with the show
That said, MacLaughlin’s clever staging and the superb cast’s committed performances make this Peter Pan enjoyable. Jo Vito Ramirez is a pugnacious Peter, Emilie Krause his adoring Wendy. Eliana Fabiyi, Brandon J. Pierce, and Leah Walton play multiple roles, often changing in an instant from Lost Boys to pirates to mermaids (inventive costumes by Olivera Gajic).
Catharine K. Slusar’s introspective Captain Hook is especially refreshing. When men play the role, it’s almost drag — think Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean. Slusar eschews Hook’s usual flowing black locks in favor of her own boldly bald pate.
She’s a more reflective tyrant, brooding about why, when children play, they want to be Peter Pan but they pick the baby to be her. “I want to mischief them all,” she confides with a twinkle in her eye.
A family affair
The cast begins and ends the show as a modern family on a camping trip. Their grassy campsite (set by David P. Gordon) includes a trailer and park restrooms, but transforms into Neverland. Rope ladders, plank bridges, and ziplines allow Pan to fly.
The actors accompany the action with instruments, playing Christopher Colucci’s original music. Fabiyi’s electric violin adds many eerie effects, including Tinkerbell’s voice. Walton and Pierce use gloves covered in green lights to create the fairy’s darting flights.
The family framing suggests that Peter Pan’s visits to abscond with young girls are a rite of passage in Wendy’s family, and extend for generations — yet another of my concerns. The implication is that, for young girls, romance means playing mother to a male who refuses to grow up. It also sounds like a common recipe for divorce. Maybe this made sense in 1904 England, but it feels wrong today.
Irvine’s script and MacLaughlin’s production feel most contemporary in their delicate treatment of modern triggers. Despite the death chatter, no weapons appear in this Peter Pan; its many swordfights are pantomimed, much as kids have always done when props aren’t handy.
The Lost Boys’ allies, led by Tiger Lily, are not “Indians” or even “Native Americans.” They’re just Hook’s other enemies. The entire production has a nurturing glow, a gentle sense of storytelling around a campfire that makes it a warm and pleasant experience, even if, like me, you find Peter Pan’s underlying themes disturbing.