Peter and the Star Catcher
by Rick Elice
Based on the novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson
Music by Wayne Barker
Directed by Bill Van Horn
Featuring Brandon O’Rourke, Ian Merrill Peakes, Aaron Cromie
Walnut Street Theatre, Philadeophia
March 15, 2016 – May 1, 2016
[This is the second of five reviews for shows viewed in Philadelphia during the April 2016 annual meeting of the American Theatre Critics Association.]
Stardust requires a delicate hand. It is possible for Rick Elise’s ephemeral creation Peter and the Starcatcher to capture “time in a bottle and Tinkerbell with a light trick” as I wrote five years ago about the show in it first Off Broadway run at the New York Theatre Workshop. The characters inspired by J. M. Barrie‘s original creation, re-imagined (or pre-imagined) in a children’s book by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson and adapted for the stage by Rick Elise, have the capacity to enchant in the right hands. The production currently running at Philadelphia’s Walnut Theatre is earthbound by a heavy set and heavy-handed acting choices. Charming moments fight for air, making a weighty experience when buoyant charm best serves the material.
The original Off Broadway and Broadway set design by Donyale Werle was flexible and powerful, a simple spare stage adorned with plastic sheeting, wooden sticks for swords, rope for swings and windows, and twee detritus decorating the house. It all felt like a bedtime story and backyard escapes. Shipboard adventures in one act were skirted by rope rigging and a ladder or two and piled sea chests and squirt bottles providing sea spray over the deck. Island-based sea adventures in the second act were highlighted by blue light illuminated plastic bags and out-sized plastic fish. The performers defined the space, and the they used the entire stage. Todd Edward Ivins at the Walnut, on the other hand, has created a literal and cramped and musty Victorian attic kind of set that limits our imagination and the movement of the performers. Our children are not in a boundless backyard limited only by their imaginations but instead hemmed in by right-stage and left stage stairways that lead nowhere and loads of discarded fluff that serves to take up most of the stage: immobile wardrobes and rugs and chairs and scaffolding. In this context, dreams don’t soar but are quite earthbound.
Just as Wicked gives us Oz before Dorothy drops in, Peter and the Starcatcher gives us Neverland before Wendy and her brothers show up. A band of boys playing in this Victorian attic at being orphans includes Peter (Brandon O’Rourke), Ted (Matthew Mastronardi) and Prentiss (Davy Raphaely), who have been sent off to sea by their school master. Ship action ensues, with one set of characters playing pirates, captained by Black Stache (Ian Merrill Peakes) along with his shtick-pulling sidekick Smee (Aaron Cromie), and a second ship led by a British sea captain soon held by those pirates and visited by Lord Aster (Dan Hodge) and his daughter Molly (Michaela Shuchman). Science and girl-power and “stardust” are plot points somewhat lost among the attic detritus in this production. Orphan Peter becomes Peter Pan, the boy who won’t grow up and can fly through ingestion of magic star dust, Black Stache becomes Captain Hook, and the crocodile who later pursues the boys and Peter is introduced. While there are moments of delight and fine delivery of the scripted lines, an essential overall lightness is never achieved.
The charming and ingenious use of limited raw materials as “found theater” and rough-hewn and choreographed story telling in the original productions of Peter and the Starcatcher were jettisoned by director Bill Van Horn for a new choice — primarily presentational and forced vaudevillian asides to the audience. In the midst of slapstick and running up and down stairs and cavorting with secrets within luggage, the suspension of whatever level of disbelief by jaded twenty-first-century theater goers hold is never achieved. When the assembled boys surround the boy Peter in the play’s final moments, when he has assimilated his new flying ability and is, we are to believe, about to take flight for the first time, he is raised up by his comrades in a freeze-frame moment, launching him into his new role and a new chapter. In the original staging this was a moment of joy and awe, a culmination of all that came before. We had been prepared for two hours to now believe that Peter would take flight. In the Walnut Street production this moment comes off as a play poster, staged moment, a hint, a hold over, a tacked on homage to what a gentle version and setting of the story could be.
© Martha Wade Steketee (April 16, 2016)
Playwright | Rick Elise, based on novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson
Director | Bill Van Horn
Set Design | Todd Edward Ivins
Costume Design | Mary Folino
Lighting Design | J. Dominic Chacon
Sound Design | Christopher Colucci