Monday, May 4, 2015

"Peter and the Starcatcher": The Fun of Storytelling

by John Glore

Art Manke at the Helm

Art Manke’s directorial debut at SCR came when he staged the Theatre for Young Audiences production of The Wind in the Willows in 2004. Two years later he directed Itamar Moses’ intellectual farce, Bach at Leipzig, on the Julianne Argyros Stage and proved himself an adept at that kind of high comedy and its precision timing, leading to such assignments as Alan Acykbourn’s Taking Steps and Michael Frayn’s Noises Off. He also directed an almost-Broadway-sized production of a musical called Lucky Duck in the 2010-11 TYA season.

Manke runs a tight ship, but he also knows how to have fun on stage. His skill set and background (which also includes work as an actor and choreographer) made him a natural choice to stage this production of Peter and the Starcatcher. With Broadway veteran Matt McGrath as Black Stache (previous SCR appearances include Ridiculous Fraud and Putting it Together), SCR stalwart Wyatt Fenner as The Boy (Rest, The Whale and Misalliance among his many SCR productions), and SCR newcomer Gabrielle McClinton as Molly, Manke has found an ideal trio of actors around which to build the ensemble that literally creates the world of the play—a group that includes such familiar faces as Kasey Mahaffey (Crimes of the Heart, You, Nero and Taking Steps), Christian Barillas (A Christmas Carol and The Motherf***er with the Hat) and Tony Abatemarco (Bach at Leipzig).

Director Art Manke
The musical duo for the show comprises musical director David O, who plays keyboards, and Joel Davel on percussion. Davel also played percussion in the season-opening production of The Tempest. David O, a fixture of the musical theatre scene in L.A., composed the music for SCR’s 2008 TYA production of Imagine.

Find more information about the artists involved in SCR’s production of Peter and the Starcatcher here.
Best-selling suspense author Ridley Pearson is clearly not half-hearted about his vocation, as evidenced by the names he has given his two daughters: Paige and Storey. So when young Paige asked him one day, “how did Peter Pan meet Captain Hook in the first place?” Pearson couldn’t resist the invitation to speculate. Speculation turned to woolgathering, woolgathering to yarn-spinning. Pearson enlisted his good friend, humorist Dave Barry, in the nascent project, and soon the two were hard at work on what would become Peter and the Starcatchers (followed by three more books in the series).

Neither Pearson nor Barry had ever written for young readers before, but they didn’t think of this project in those terms: “We're not trying to write for children,” Pearson said at the time. “We're just telling a story.” Barry added, “This is the most fun I've ever had writing a book. By far.”

That sense of unfettered fun, of tale-telling without regard to the expectations of any particular age group, has survived intact in Rick Elice’s stage adaptation of the book, crafted in collaboration with directors Roger Rees and Alex Timbers. The play has been made to appeal to anyone with an active imagination and a desire to be swept away by a good story well told.

And like many a good story, this one launches when a boy meets a girl. She is named Molly; he has no name, at least not one that he can remember, so he is simply called The Boy.

This also is a tale of two ships, which have been enlisted in a secret mission on behalf of the Queen. One ship holds precious cargo—something of great value, locked inside a trunk. The other holds an identical trunk containing sand, to be used as a decoy. The Queen has entrusted the valuable cargo to Lord Leonard Aster—Molly’s father—and Molly, a strong-minded girl with a taste for adventure, has insisted that she be allowed to accompany him on his voyage to the distant land of Rundoon. Lord Aster has reluctantly agreed, on condition that she be escorted by her nanny, Mrs. Bumbrake, and that the two of them make the journey on the slower, safer of the two ships, the Neverland, while Lord Aster travels on the Wasp, the fastest ship in the Queen’s fleet.

Peter and the Starcatcher set design by Michael B. Raiford.
And—as fate would have it—also on board the Neverland is that nameless Boy, one of three orphans from St. Norbert’s Orphanage for Lost Boys who have been sold to the ship’s captain, Slank. Slank—as his Dickensian name might suggest—seems to be a man of questionable character. That impression is confirmed when we learn he has contrived to switch the two trunks so that the one holding the unknown valuables has been placed on board his own ship, the Neverland, instead of the Wasp.

But Slank is only the lesser of two villains in this story, for shortly after the two ships set sail, the seamen on the Wasp reveal themselves to be pirates—including one Mr. Smee—led by their nefarious captain, The Black Stache. Stache wants whatever is in that trunk—gold? jewels?—and he’s none too happy when he opens it to discover only sand. Heads will roll and planks will be walked if Stache doesn’t get what he’s after.

Meanwhile, trapped together on the Neverland, Molly and The Boy get to know one another, helped along when she saves him from drowning after he has been thrown overboard by Slank. When Molly discovers what’s in the trunk of valuables, and also learns about the take-over of the Wasp by pirates, she enlists her new friend to help her put things right—and The Boy proves more than willing, for he too has an adventurous spirit.

As the story unfolds, Molly and The Boy encounter glowing amulets, magic dust, a flying cat, a hurricano, mermaids, a volcano and a crocodile named Mr. Grin, and eventually find themselves stranded on an uncharted island peopled by hostile natives called the Mollusks. Working together to overcome one adversity after another, Molly and The Boy grow closer and even begin to learn the meaning of love. Meanwhile, we discover how The Boy acquires a name—Peter Pan—and how a great many of the surprising elements in J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up, came to be.

While the book Peter and the Starcatchers may be the origin story of Peter Pan, there’s no question that Molly is its protagonist. “We both have daughters,” Barry has said, “and we wanted there to be a girl character who was strong and brave.”

The stage version of Peter and the Starcatcher (Elice chose to drop the final “s” from the title) began its journey in 2009 at the La Jolla Playhouse, then moved to an off-Broadway run at the New York Theatre Workshop. Ecstatic reviews prompted a transfer to Broadway (2012), where the play earned the most Tony nominations of any play in history—nine—and won five awards.

Part of the play’s wide appeal can be traced to Pearson and Barry’s original story—a fantastic concatenation of elements from J.M. Barrie filtered through the authors’ own fertile imaginations. But for adults in particular, the highly theatrical story-telling method provides at least half the fun. As Elice describes it in a prefatory note, “The dozen actors play everyone and everything—sailors, pirates, orphans, natives, fish, mermaids, birds ... even doors, passageways, masts, storms, jungles.” They are joined on stage by two musicians who accompany several songs sung by the cast (including a show-stopping mermaid number) and also provide live foley sound effects throughout the play. In a nod to British music hall entertainments and holiday pantos, the role of the nanny, Mrs. Bumbrake, is played by a male actor—Tony Abatemarco in SCR’s production—and the prominent moustache that gives The Black Stache his name is painted on, à la Groucho Marx.

Costume renderings for Peter and the Starcatcher by designer Angela Balogh Calin.
SCR’s Segerstrom Stage season opened with a fantastic shipwreck—in a magic-infused production of The Tempest—and now closes with another, as the embattled Neverland splits in two and sends its passengers scrambling to safety on an unnamed island, occupied by characters every bit as surprising as Prospero, Miranda, Caliban and Ariel. Although the two shows are very different in many respects, they also have a great deal in common, beginning with their shared sense of theatre as an ideal home for wonder, man-made magic, character-forging adventure—and unabashed fun.

One doesn’t have to be a child to appreciate Peter and the Starcatcher—in fact some of its delights are best enjoyed by adults—but it doesn’t hurt to adopt a childlike openness and belief that, in the world of theatre, at least, anything is possible. When J.M. Barrie created Peter Pan—a character who has long since entered the realm of myth in Western culture—he understood that growing up can be a difficult adventure, and that at one time or another almost everyone has felt the desire to hang onto or reclaim childlike innocence, playfulness and freedom from worldly cares. Peter and the Starcatcher is a gift to that part of us, wrapped in the brightest imaginable theatrical trimmings.

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