Before Wendy and Peter Pan, there was Molly (Joanna Howard) and a nameless, ordinary, orphan boy (Noah Zachary); at least, according Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson’s novella, Peter and the Star-Catcher, adapted for the stage by Rick Elice, and now playing at The Milwaukee Repertory Theatre. Molly, a star-catcher-apprentice to her father Lord Aster (Linton Brandhagen), helps him collect and disposes of star-stuff: a mystical element which will turn anyone into who they want to be, and thus threaten the world with power-craven dictators far worse than those running the British empire to which there are frequent allusions: Lord Aster, Queen Victoria, Anglican Nautical Hymns, a ship called the Wasp, and the lines of famous British verse. In the course she meets “the boy,” (who will be become Peter Pan) and other orphans, and engages them in an adventure involving the star-stuff which will accidentally change the boy’s life forever and set the provenance for the story of Peter Pan. The appeal of the show comes from its mix of high and low humor and referents. There are jokes about flatulence, the etymology of names, Phillip Glass, Robert Browning, and Ayn Rand while the Mermaids and Molly’s Nanny, Mrs. Bumbrake (Andy Paterson) are done in comic, effective, and deliberately unconvincing drag (Costume Designer: David Kay Mickelsen).
Blake Robison’s direction can be fast paced, playing up the culturally sophisticated dialectical humor bordering on the Frasieresque by having his actors deliver it at rapid speed (this is mirrored in quick and complex blocking). He also tends to focus on the fairly campy and very funny sub-plots rather than the general story. The result of Robison’s face-paced direction is that the humor gets played up to great effect, but the main plot, which sets the provenance for J.M. Barrie’s ultimately wistful story with overtones of pure tragedy, can, at times, become extremely hard to follow. Moreover, Elice has tried to eliminate some of the sadder parts of J.M. Barry’s work.
We do hear that Peter wants a family and over the course of the play it becomes impossible that he should ever have one; he will be an orphan forever. Elice unconvincingly tries to mitigate this “riddle of his being,” giving Peter the entire Island and its inhabitants as kin, but anyone familiar with Barry’s novella or play knows that Peter’s inability to ever have one is the key to the stories underlying darkness. Likewise, Black Stache (Tom Story)—the prototype for hook—lacks a backstory that would make Peter the convincing foil for him that the script insist the latter will become. It is perhaps for these reasons, as well as to entertain family-based audiences, that Robison goes for humor, effects, and magic.
That said, Robison executes this choice extremely effectively and under his direction, Zachary brings out a sensitivity in Peter that is markedly absent from most productions of adaptation’s from J.M. Barry’s story and play. In particular, when Molly apologizes for being insensitive regarding the fact that Peter is an orphan and doesn’t have a bed, he delivers a quasi-eschatological speech in which he says that at night when he looks through the galley at the stars he hopes that one day, in a few hundred years, no one will ever have to say sorry again (it does so little good) because the world will be so lovely that no-one will ever have to. It’s an incredible monologue, and one which Robison’s direction effectively emphasizes by setting it aside with subtle choices in sound (Matthew Nielson), lighting (Kenton Yeager), blocking.
Extremely strong performances are delivered by Noah Zachary, the Boy/Peter, and Sean Mellott. In fact, never before have I seen adult actors play children so convincingly in a way which effectively makes them seem young, innocent, and mystical rather than dark or cruel. Zachary deserves particular credit for maintaining this as he had to balance it with the more self-centered and damaged attributes of his character, and because it has been extremely unusual for adult men to play “the boy” (i.e. Peter) on stage so he had little from which to draw. Andy Paterson is hilarious as Mrs. Bumbrake (more than living up to the character’s name) and somewhat frightening as a sinister mermaid called “The Teacher” even though he is drag in both parts. Joanna Howard delivers her performance with breathtaking consistency and energy, but never moves beyond the caricature of a precocious girl, putting Zachary front and center as “The Boy.” In contrast the famous Broadway version of Peter Pan in which much of the enchantment comes from visuals (in particularly levitation) the variety, strength, and richness of Nielson’s sound effects are which more subtly produce the ambience of adventure and magic in this production.
Peter and the Star-Catcher is running through May 24, 2015 at the Milwaukee Rep. Theatre located at 108 Wells Street Milwaukee. Performances are Wednesday 5/13 at 1:30 pm and a 7:30 pm performance with a talk back, Thursday 5/14 at 7:30, and Friday 5/15/ 8:00 pm. Saturday 5/16 at 4:00 pm and 8:00 pm, and Sunday 5/17 at 2:00 pm and 7:00 pm (captioned performance) Tuesday 5/19 at 7:30 pm, Wednesday 5/20/ at 7:30 pm, Thursday 5/21/15 at 7:30 pm, Friday 5/22 at 8 PM, Saturday 5/23/14 at 400 pm and 8:00 pm, and Sunday 5/24 at 2:00 pm and 7:00 PM. Prices begin at 20 dollars and can be purchased online at www.MilwaukeeRep.com or by calling 414-224-9490. The Milwaukee Rep. is located in downtown Milwaukee at 108 E. Wells Street, and you can park easily on the street or pre-purchase a parking garage voucher for a mere $7.50 ( a far cry from the loop)
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