Peter Pan, that fabled boy who cannot or refuses to grow up, needed to believe he could fly before he successfully took to the air.
As an audience member of the origin story “Peter and the Starcatcher,” onstage now at Nadine Baum Studios in Fayetteville courtesy of TheatreSquared and the Arkansas Repertory Theatre, you’ll need to believe in this play to make it work. You’ll need, like the characters, a bit of imagination, too. Matching their makeshift mermaid costumes is optional, but I don’t think TheatreSquared will turn you away at the gates if you try.
“Peter and the Starcatcher” is to the beloved tale “Peter Pan” as “Wicked” is to “The Wizard of Oz.” What we know of Peter is somewhat sparse, and my memories of the classic tale are probably like yours – Peter can fly, he likes to fight against pirates and he does not grow up. “Peter and the Starcatcher” attempts to provide much of the backstory. We learn of Peter’s orphanage, how he received his name, his harrowing first journey to Neverland and the first time he met the dreaded pirate that would become his eternal archenemy. This supplemental Pan story first debuted as a novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, then transferred to stage courtesy of a script by Rick Elice, who also co-wrote the popular musical “Jersey Boys.”
What: TheatreSquared’s performance of “Peter and the Starcatcher,” an origin story for Peter Pan.
When: Wed-Sun through Jan. 3
Where: Nadine Baum Studios, Fayetteville
Tickets: 479-443-5600 or theatre2.org
“Peter and the Starcatcher” isn’t exactly a musical, although there are several songs. It’s not a pure comedy, either, although it at times uproariously funny. I caught one of the TheatreSquared actors summoning his full might to avoid laughing while in character at one moment. Sure, the Thursday (Dec. 3) show I watched was the cast’s first with a full audience, but I don’t blame this actor, either – this play is occasionally very funny. It’s also a very clean show, and one younger audiences will appreciate. It’s hard to know what is real or imagined in the realm of Neverland, but the apex of violence in this production takes place as a pirate wields a plunger. Representational or not, it’s innocuous stuff as presented here. TheatreSquared puts on many high-minded, weighty dramas, and we should all be thankful for them. This isn’t one of those shows, and that’s okay, too.
The local telling of the show marks the first combined effort of TheatreSquared and the Arkansas Repertory Theatre of Little Rock. When the run of shows in Fayetteville ends Jan. 3, the show will depart for a Little Rock run using the same actors and direction from Mark Shanahan. Crowds in both locations are likely to enjoy themselves, although “Peter and the Starcatcher” just isn’t the kind of tale that inspires much post-show self-assessment. This is intended as a romp, and it serves as a vehicle for actors to have a little fun. Particularly, Hugh Kennedy will hook you with this super smarmy but still dastardly take on Black Stache, the notorious pirate. He’s perhaps upstaged by the work of actor Bruce Warren, who steals the spotlight from himself when he temporarily ditches the character Mrs. Bumbrake to take a turn as Teacher, a wise mermaid.
Aesthetically, the show brings the wood plank to just a few feet from the first row of seats. The studio space is covered in old wood from floor to ceiling. It’s a big stage, made for a big cast, at least in terms of TheatreSquared standards. This is a big production for the formerly little theater group, now entering its 10th season of productions. In many ways, this is another success for the group, in terms of laughs and the new partnership with the Rep. The show debuted here, and was staged here. It’s then being transferred, and that order is significant. This is a contest everyone wins, of course, but our corner of the state represents itself well in the process.
It takes this combined version of “Peter and the Starcatcher” a while to get moving. I couldn’t tell if that was the result of first-show-in-front-of-an-audience jitters or the time it took to suspend belief. This is a show where cats don’t fly – an obviously stuffed animal is instead handed from cast member to cast member and the audience is outright asked to instead imagine it was flying. Everyone else is asked to believe that a perhaps 10-foot-wide string of white cloth pendants is instead the teeth of an oversized crocodile. You might also want to believe that pirates in 1885 knew about writer Ayn Rand, coffee chain Starbucks and the 2003 song from Kelis called “Milkshake.” Damn right, THAT milkshake song. No pun is left unmade, anachronisms be darrrned. (That’s a pirate joke. Sorry) The one-liners, all better than mine, come one after another during the show’s climax.
The fable of Peter Pan tells us that we’ll all grow up and forget our childlike, innocent ways. I can’t promise you that “Peter and the Starcatcher” will stick around with you for any length of time, either. But boy, is it fun to be free for a while. You can be, too, as long as you believe it to fruition.