Wednesday, November 3, 2010

You'll Believe a Boy Can Fly

A new production of "Peter Pan" that originated in England on the grounds that inspired the play is now touring the U.S. and currently playing inside a special temporary facility at the Orange County Performing Arts Center. The show runs through January 2, 2011.

On the one hand, the new production appears to go back to the roots of the original show, eschewing the well known Disney version as well as the route most traditional productions have taken by casting a woman as Peter. In this show, all of the children’s roles are played by adults playing young.

On the other hand, however, the production attempts to reinvent the show by creating a Cirque du Soleil feel. The show is mounted inside a specially-designed tent that offers a theater-in-the-round experience and a 360-degree screen around the top of the tent that uses moving CGI images to create backdrops for the show, complementing the traditional props and stagecraft. The projected images also evoke a moody atmosphere as well as some nifty flying effects—while the actors hang from the ceiling in harnesses, IMAX-like projections provide a moving CGI landscape that creates a sense of flight and movement.

This production is clearly intended to appeal to adults as much as to the children—indeed, there are a few moments in the show that some sensitive and very young children may find intense. In Captain Hook’s first scene, for example, he dispatches an insubordinate henchman on his pirate crew by explicitly cutting his throat. Although there’s no blood, the deed is explicitly performed in full view of the audience. Similarly, when Tiger Lily goes into an interpretive dance to thank Peter for saving her life, it’s surprisingly provocative and even sexual, presumably an enticement for Peter to grow up (in the end, Peter is puzzled and disinterested). In addition, in this production, the children are a bit more wild and unruly than usual—bordering on Lord of the Flies territory—while clearly yearning for love and order in their lives, which they look for by asking Wendy to be their mother. Only Peter, in the end, is adamant to never grow up.

Tinkerbell is also completely re-imagined in this production. She is a fairy with attitude, often jeering and mocking the others, especially Wendy who it cannot be overstated Tinkerbell really dislikes.

In addition to the modern special effects, however, the production makes clever use of old-fashioned stagecraft, making it a great introduction to the magic of theatre for children and their parents. There are several animal characters in the production, including Nanna, the sheepdog, and of course the crocodile who is Hook’s bete noire. They are played by puppeteers who work in plain view of the audience on stage, but whose work still successfully creates a sense of awe and wonder. The crocodile is particularly a crowd-pleaser, made up of wire and dressing, which two puppeteers propel around stage with their feet as they sit inside the contraption, with an animatronic head that the front puppeteer controls with effective and lifelike movements.

Some past reviews of the show note that the reimagined production lacks true spark and especially heart. While in retrospect I agree with this to some extent, the spectacle of the presentation and stage effects serve to overcome these shortcomings. While all the performances are good, as expected, the role of Captain Hook, played by Shakespearean actor Jonathan Hyde (who, of course, also plays the children’s vain and not very sympathetic father), is a scene stealer. In retrospect, the show really emphasizes both the innate need for love and nurturing, and the importance of the mother-child bond, as well as the bittersweet inevitability of growing up.

For more information about the show and tickets, visit the production’s official website.


Bob Westal said...

That tradition of having the same actor play the father and Captain Hook always seemed a bit Oedipal, but then again that's what's great about "Peter Pan." There's a lot of honest darkness in it.

I like the idea of having an actual male play him for a change, though. It would be interesting to see them try it some time with an actual teenaged actor.

Randy Reynaldo said...

Actually, I've been looking for a critical essay that talks about what this play seems to say about fathers and fatherhood. In this production, women and mothers are very much portrayed and seen as ideal, nurturing individuals.

In contrast, in the show, Mr. Darling is really quite a pill, so it must mean something that they same actor plays Hook. At the end, Darling does come around a bit (in an ending that is a bit different than at least the Disney film, not sure about the original play), but he still remains quite the drama queen nevertheless.