Monday, July 16, 2012

Peter and the Starcatcher: Handmade Vaudeville

Christian Borle (far right) and the cast of Peter and the Starcatcher (All photos by  Sara Krulwich)

The entrancing Peter and the Starcatcher, adapted by Rick Elice from the Dave Barry-Ridley Pearson novel, is an origin story for James Barrie’s Peter Pan, just as the blockbuster musical Wicked imagines the origins of the two witches in The Wizard of Oz. The complicated plot, which is set out quickly in the opening minutes (you have to listen sharply), involves two ships, the Neverland and the Wasp. The first carries a trio of orphans who are, unbeknownst to them, due to be sold into slavery, as well as Molly (Celia Keenan-Bolger), the feisty, adventure-loving daughter of Lord Aster (Rick Holmes), who is on the second ship, discharging a mission for Queen Victoria to hurl a trunk full of “star stuff” – highly dangerous stardust (its ability to make wishes come true can transform ambitious men and women into tyrants) – into the world’s oldest active volcano. (The writers were obviously thinking of The Lord of the Rings.) Molly, trained by her father to be a starcatcher, befriends the most sensitive of the orphans, a nameless lad (Adam Chanler-Berat) who doesn’t trust adults – in his experience, they always lie – yet cherishes a dream of home and mother. It is only in the second act, when the action moves to an island, that he acquires the name Peter Pan (first Peter and then Pan). Here he tangles with the pirate known as Black Stache (Christian Borle), before he’s become Captain Hook. You recognize other elements of the Barrie tale: Smee (Kevin Del Aguila) is Stache’s inseparable second-in-command, there’s a ticking crocodile, and the Indians are islanders called Mollusks. Nana the dog has her counterpart in Molly’s nanny, Mrs. Bumbrake (played in drag by Arnie Burton), who speaks in stiff-upper-lip English clich├ęs and wears her hair in a bun that looks oddly like a dog’s ear.

The idea of devising a prequel to a beloved children’s story is greatly appealing, though Wicked, with its overlaid empowerment message and suffocating high-tech visuals, is mostly a pain.  By contrast, Peter and the Starcatcher has a modest, handmade charm.  The ensemble is small – eleven men and one woman – and they present the narrative in the form of an improvised children’s theatrical, though it’s clear that the direction by Roger Rees and Alex Timbers (with movement staged by Steven Hoggett, who performed the same task for Once) has been carefully and precisely worked through.  The style is theatricalism, which we associate on these shores mostly with Thornton Wilder but which Rees must have learned from Trevor Nunn when he played the title role in Nunn’s legendary Royal Shakespeare Company production of Nicholas Nickleby.  Here are a few examples.  When Molly investigates the rooms below deck on the Neverland, she mimes opening a series of doors; the ensemble, lined up with their backs to the audience, spins out into a series of groupings to sketch the inhabitants of each new chamber.  A confined space is suggested by the characters within it (Molly and Mrs. Bumbrake) framed by a rope in the shape of a tight rectangle.  When Borle takes on the role of Black Stache, he paints on a handlebar mustache at a hand mirror hanging from a downstage pole.  An approaching ship is represented by a model ship atop a pole, a flying Union Jack, and actors in a swaying pyramid below.  Donyale Werle designed the set, a wonderful hodgepodge that becomes truly inventive when the play moves along to the island in the second act, and Jeff Croiter lit it – sometimes magically, as in the misty grotto scene, where “star stuff” makes its inevitable appearance.

Celia Keenan-Bolger and Adam Chanler-Berat (upside-down)
The script is witty and often hilarious.  Mrs. Bumbrake’s proliferating alliteration is offset by Stache’s malapropisms (which Smee is constantly at pains to correct).  And Elice piles on puns and cheerful anachronisms  (one of my favorites is “as elusive as a melody in a Philip Glass opera,” though I also loved the idea that Lord Aster’s list of villains affected by star stuff includes Ayn Rand) and throws in the occasional theatrical in-joke.  When the crocodile – whose eyes are a pair of red plastic bowls held up to the light – shows up in act two, Smee announces to his captain that it’s chewing the scenery and Stache snaps back, “Not in my scene, he isn’t.”  There’s a clear line from English music hall and pantomime through American vaudeville to TV revue-sketch comedy, and Elice and the co-directors evoke every link.  The ensemble shows up at the top of the second act dressed as mermaids with ridiculous wigs and breasts constructed of a variety of kitchen implements.  (The costume designer is Paloma Young.  The music for this number and the handful of other songs was contributed by Wayne Barker; they’re vibrant and catchy, especially the march at the end of act one.) Borle’s teamwork with Del Aguila is reminiscent of the kind of banter that the great TV duos of the fifties and early sixties were celebrated for – Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca, Martin and Lewis, Carol Burnett and Harvey Korman.  It has an irresistible self-consciousness:  they build on each other’s inspirations, they appreciate each other’s lunacy, and the audience is on the best joke, that their secret aim is to crack each other up.  Despite the line I quoted above, Borle isn’t a scenery chewer.  He has a big, expressive face – a great comedian’s face – that he parries into a style, but he’s clever enough to hold back, to underplay until the last possible moment.  He turns the scene where Stache loses his hand into a deliciously attenuated mini-symphony of double and triple takes.  (I was lucky enough to see Borle’s Tony Award-winning performance just before he left the show.)

There isn’t a weak spot in the cast, who seem to have been chosen as much for their collective motley appearance as for their considerable skills.  Besides Borle and Del Aguila, I particularly enjoyed Burton’s no-nonsense nanny, Holmes as the swashbuckling Lord Aster, and certainly the two heroes, Chanler-Berat (who has a lovely woebegone quality) and the always admirable Keenan-Bolger, whom I last had the opportunity to praise in the Encores! production of Merrily We Roll Along.  Molly is a marvelous part:  Elice, presumably working off Barry and Pearson, have given her a spine.  Barrie’s Wendy is such a little Edwardian mother; I’ve always found her fastidiousness and self-righteousness borderline insufferable.  But at the end of Peter and the Starcatcher, when the play works her into Barrie’s mythology, the results are unexpectedly poignant; I don’t think that anyone whose favorite children’s book is Peter Pan will feel emotionally shortchanged by the last few minutes.  The play is a completely satisfying entertainment.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny ReviewThe Boston Phoenix and The Christian Century and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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