Peter and the Starcatcher

by John Stoltenberg

(This review was written for DCMetroTheaterArts and is reprinted here.)

If you’re willing to let your inner child stay up after bedtime and go out and play at Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater instead, you’re in for an evening of theatrical wonderment and once-upon-a-time delight the likes of which grownups rarely get permission from their inner adult to enjoy. Peter and the Starcatcher, the enthralling prequel to Peter Pan, is packed with so much imagination, agile acting, and sheer theatrical astonishment, it’s like an adventure in agelessness and a flashback to childhood.

You know that precious innocence when a child is enchanted by a grownup’s sleight-of-hand—some trick like peek-a-boo that makes the child giggle with surprise? Those ephemeral entertainments don’t depend on “suspension of disbelief,” because there’s no disbelief to suspend—the kid is too young for maturity’s skepticism to have set in; there’s only openness to awe. So those marvelous moments are instant entrees to the immense aptitude for imagination that somehow in human evolution got entwined in our DNA.

Peter and the Starcatcher is a myriad of such marvel-us moments.

Twelve virtuoso actors—all play multiple roles—tell a tale with more twists than the prop ropes they perform with. Based on the 2004 novel Peter and the Starcatchers (plural) by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, the play Peter and the Starcatcher (singular) by Rick Elice is a fanciful back story to J.M. Barrie’s beloved classic about the boy who doesn’t grow up. And more fancies take flight in this show than one could possibly keep track of. By the end of its two acts we learn, among other things, who the lost boys are and how they got onto that island, why it’s called Neverland, how the lost boy Peter got his name, how the villainous Captain Hook got behanded and why he has such animus toward Peter, why that ferocious crocodile tick-tocks and gives Hook conniptions, why Peter doesn’t grow up, and how Tinkerbell flitted into his life.

Unleashing a pastiche of techniques from story theater, vaudeville, panto, music hall, and more, directors Roger Rees and Alex Timbers—aided and abetted by Steven Hoggett’s eloquent movement and Wayne Barker’s winsome incidental music—create a richly imagined onstage world where the ordinary becomes extraordinary each and every instant. The flighty, peevish personality that becomes Tinkerbell, for instance, is introduced into the story as a yellow bird—represented by a household rubber cleaning glove that is flapped about by actors. “Clap your hands if you believe…” would have been superfluous just then, because that rubber glove had come to avian life before our eyes.

Much of Act One takes place on board two ships set sail from Victorian England toward the island later to be known as Neverland. As the actors lean in unison from side to side to the sound of creaking timbers, the sense of being at sea becomes visceral. Using simple ropes, the actors variously create scenes of cramped quarters belowdecks, the horizon of the ocean upon which miniature boats appear in the distance, the devouring jaws of a shark, the roiling sea itself—and each inventive image after the other takes hold in the mind’s eye as if real.

The playfulness of the staging is matched by the players’. The entire cast performs with precision and panache—this is one of the most artfully attuned ensembles I’ve ever seen on stage—and the three leads in particular are sensational. As Boy (who becomes Peter), Joey deBettencourt combines adolescent daring-do with sweetness and longing. As Molly (whose fondness for Peter takes them both by surprise), Megan Stern mixes her big bold voice with protofeminist moxie to make this young girl’s hopes and dreams both touching and uplifting. The hammy, over-the-top, insanely hilarious scene stealer of the show, however, is John Sanders as Black Stache (pirate nemesis to Peter). There’s a scene in Act Two when with a single line from the play (“Oh my god!”), he creates and sustains a show-stopping scene single-handedly (a pun intentional the script) that had the opening night audience laughing happily ever after.

The beguiling staging is deceptively simple. At one point, for instance, Peter jumps from a ladder onto a firefighter’s net held by fellow castmembers and it’s as if he dives headlong into the sea. There’s actually elaborate complexity underlying all the magic. The lighting design by Jeff Croiter is bewilderingly good—it’s as if each beat and nearly each line are punctuated by another eye-popping illumination illusion. The scenic design by Donyale Werle sets Act One as if in the hold of a dank dark ship then washes us in sunshine and open blue sea for Act Two’s island locale. Werle’s ornate gold proscenium and claret curtains evoke Victorian toy theater; meanwhile on either side musicians perched on high platforms propel the story with an extraordinary score of percussion, melody, and sound effects. The costume designs by Paloma Paloma are so clever and amusing they deserve to be admired on their own—as indeed a few can be in a showcase at the Eisenhower Theater. And in the jaw-dropping opening number of Act Two—a mermaid burlesque—Paloma’s comic costumes nearly upstage the entire spectacular production.

Rick Elice’s witty script is a marvel in its own right. It’s a treasure trove of word play, linguistic jokes, and hilariously off-the wall anachronisms (including winking nods to composer Phillip Glass, pop singer Kelis, and author Ayn Rand). No wonder it provoked this show’s artistry and whimsy.

A trunk full of “starstuff” figures prominently in Peter and the Starcatcher’s plot. The story’s maguffin, starstuff is a highly prized substance with magical transformative powers. Think fairy dust on steroids. Or acid. Or simply one’s long-ago preconstrained imagination.

“To have faith is to fly” is a lesson Peter learns by-and-by. Figuratively dusting audiences with a big dose of starstuff, this awesome show inspires inner children to want to make that leap too.

Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission.

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