Dreamy “Peter Pan” Grows Wild and Full of Bedlam

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[article as originally published in The Clyde Fitch Report, November 21, 2017.]

A new adaptation of J.M. Barrie’s 1904 play Peter Pan presented by the theater company Bedlam and running The Duke through Dec. 23, takes place within a soundscape of rain, waves and thunder claps. We’re safe in our theater seats as we settle into the frame of a bedtime story told and retold by the Darling parents to children Wendy, John and Michael; then by the children to one another; and then, ultimately, as the base script for a backyard playhouse version of Peter Pan, with his troupe of motherless boys. The play’s language is dream-like and poetic and repetitive; the costumes are contemporary and suggestive; the set at once suggestive and literal.

This often-revisited story of the boy who wouldn’t grow up, who tells us “I want always to be a little boy and to have fun,” has produced the name of a syndrome, enhanced the careers of American actresses from Maude Adams to Mary Martin, and spun off myriad new creations such as the Tony-winning Peter and the Starcatcher, which envisions these familiar characters a generation on. In Barrie’s original, Wendy, John and Michael live in Barrie-era London with their parents, a protective dog, and at least one servant; Peter, the perpetual adolescent, visits them through their bedroom window and whisks them away to Neverland — a land of motherless boys. In the midst of this, Peter’s jealous helpmate, the fairy Tinkerbell, both helps and hinders. As Wendy ends up parenting the troupe of boys, evil adults — including the pirate Captain Hook — are thwarted; and the children are safe in their beds by morning.

Bedlam’s production digs into the literal and figurative storytelling of the original play and lands on the comforting idea of being told stories as the coin of the realm. Portions of the dialogue are told and retold in this ensemble-created script, with sequences often repeated to great effect. “We are doing an act,” Darling son John repeats many times, as if speaking to his mother. “We are playing at being you and father.” This Peter Pan keeps the child’s view of adulthood (pretending, embodying, needing) never far from view.

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