All Things Entertaining and Cultural
Director Bill Van Horn provides clarity and room for comic ideas to breathe that sets his production of “Peter and the Starcatcher” for a Walnut above any of the previous three I’ve seen. Van Horn’s good choices are evident from the beginning of the show in which characters and the basic situation, two trunks sailing to the same place on two ships being purposely switched, are introduced in a manner that takes it time and lets you focus on the dramatis personae rather than rush each character past you in a jumble.
Van Horn’s approach lets you take stock of the characters and understand their place in Rick Elice’s play that reveals how J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan became able to fly.
You’d think such an elemental process of introduction would be part of any staging of “Peter.” But no. All three other times, the character whizzed by, just about getting their names out, before someone else claimed your attention or some action on stage distracted you.
I prefer Van Horn’s care. It so much more effectively establishes the play and makes you curious about what might happen. Scenic designer Todd Edward Ivins greatly aids Van Horn by keeping his set open and accessible while sporting the random and varied clutter of sea chests, costumes, etc. that is part and parcel of “Peter,” which takes place on the decks and holds of two ships.
The way “Peter” plays and looks reminded me of another Walnut success from earlier in the season, Donald Margulies’s “Shipwrecked,” which was directed by Jesse Bernstein. As with that show, “Peter” delights and engages while treating you to humorous asides and references that add texture, contemporaneity, wit, and fun. (Even if Elice gets Ayn Rand and her aims all wrong).
Van Horn’s “Peter” plays like a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. The pirates Peter and his friend, Molly, must stymie are fierce and comic in turn. Ian Merrill Peakes, as the most dastardly of the villains, is consistently hilarious, even when he’s threatening or snarling, as he goes through the vain, preening paces commonly associated with theater versions of Captain Hook. Peakes also shows the remarkable agility he’s displayed from “Molly’s Delicious” forward, his gymnastic exploits leading to some brilliant comic moments, one particularly nimble and side-splitting.
The good news is Van Horn can wed all the hijinks and one-liners Elice supplies with a touching, atmospheric story about an orphaned boy, sent on an adventurous voyage to be a meal for a Polynesian brigand’s pet octopus, discovering freedom, potential, and love.
Van Horn neatly suspends comic antics to give both Brandon O’Rourke’s Peter and Michaela Schuchman’s Molly the chance to relate to the audience as interesting people and romantic leads. Peter might want to be a boy forever, but his adolescent hormones are stimulated by Molly. Molly may be intellectual and care more about science, stardust, and responsibility to her father than matters one would consider girlish, but she cares for Peter in a way that evolves from maternal to romantic and affectionate. O’Rourke and Schuchman each have the assurance that allows us to see their youthfulness, their maturity, their childhood ways, and their eventual ardor.
Like children, the two will challenge each other to feats such as who can climb a mountain the fastest, which is the more competent leader, and who knows the most about what. (The more diligently educated and bred Molly usually wins these contests). Like friends, they will trust each other to be a partner in an important enterprise that involves powerful astral material and puts them at risk of capture by pirates and denizens of outposts on which they find harbor. Like teenagers, they will become attracted to one another and have thoughts of intimacy that confuse as much as excited them.
O’Rourke is excellent at playing all parts of Peter’s maturing. You can see him wrestling with ideas, reactions, and situations Peter doesn’t understand. He can be petulant and pout, he can be ponderous and thoughtful, he can be brave, and he can look at Molly with ardor and a longing he doesn’t quite comprehend.
O’Rourke is a dimensional Peter who gives Van Horn’s production an emotional core. There’s depth to his cogitations as he figures out aspects of life one doesn’t encounter in an orphanage or locked in a ship’s hold being fed worms while being transported as a sea creature’s meal.
Schuchman is equally adept. She draws you to Molly and makes you admire the character’s range of knowledge, directness, and sense of command. As with O’Rourke, Schuchman conveys how Molly is going from being Peter’s buddy to being his love, as she becomes his.
O’Rourke and Schuchman make you like Peter and Molly and care about what happens, even when they are involved in dilemmas, such as dealing with primitive native tribes, that take a little too long to resolve and set your mind to wandering some.
O’Rourke, who performed professionally as a child but was absent from the stage in his early teen years, has developed into a fine actor who can convey many moods, attitudes, and emotions, He is also adept in comic scenes and does his fine job with Peter’s repeating line about how grown-ups can’t be trusted. Schuchman charms with the pert resourcefulness and easy authority of Molly. The character may be young, but she’s worldly and well-taught in a way that comes in handy when strategizing is in order.
While Peter and Molly are growing in their individual ways, the pirates and other scoundrels have fun with the antics Van Horn assigns them. There are planks to walk, swords to face, and crocodiles to consume discarded clocks and limbs. Derring-do is played out melodramatically and with a comic tone. You sense danger but know from the silly way it’s presented, all will turn to the heroes’ favor.
Meanwhile, there’s the entertainment value of the pirates’ plots and the pirates’ jokes, which contain a lot of puns, double entendres, and dropped names that cause a chuckle and earn Elice, along with the authors whose book he adapted, Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, high marks for cleverness.
Van Horn is smart about how these bons mots are delivered. Usually, I don’t like deliberate pushing of humor, especially fleeting references on one-liners. I prefer jokes come naturally, as if a character is truly funny and speaking amusingly in his or her own voice. In this case, pointing the jokes works. The characters are often is a situation of one-upmanship, and the style Van Horn prescribes is one of sharing an intentional yok with the audience. Many comic lines are delivered with a droll stare to the house and a pause between the set-up and the joke. The leering works here. It seems the right kind of conspiratorial, especially since the audience is one of the partners, and lines land with the honed comic shine that makes them pay.
This involves a lot of deftness from the Walnut cast, and all are up to the task. Peakes gets many of the best laughs, some at his character, Black Stache’s, expense. You remember he is also a deft physical clown. Aaron Cromie’s Smee pitches in with sarcasm dripping from his usually ironic lines. Alex Bechtel has only a few opportunities to make comic impact, and he makes the most of every one of them, especially when he’s bellowing his lines while playing an instrument and working in a hold stage left. Matthew Mastornardi, for most of the show the most sad sack and unambitious of the orphans, or Lost Boys, one committed more to eating than to work or appreciating adventure, has a marvelous dance bit in which he puts his performance and character in an entirely new light. Jered McLenigan, too, has only a couple of moments in the spotlight but makes each of them into gems.
The gentlest and funniest comedy, perhaps because it’s more comic relief than outright tomfoolery, comes from David Bardeen and Dave Jadico, whose play one of the friendlier pirates, Alf, and Molly’s independent-minded nursemaid, Bet Bumbrake, who is properly British and dedicated to her duty but ready to have a randy good time aboard ship (with Alf aboard her) when the occasion arises.
Bardeen differentiates himself by being fairly nice, if sardonic, to the orphans. When he meets Bet, he becomes too smitten to be a pirate when it’s so much more fun to be a lover.
Jadico, who has earned a deserved reputation for playing a range of comic parts, responds beautifully when Bet realizes Alf has romance in mind, becoming both coquettish and obviously willing to succumb to a suitor’s advances. The actor truly nails an extracurricular role as a mermaid who explains how much more she enjoys being part woman instead of an ordinary fish. Scenes with mermaids and a tribe called Mollusks, can become more tedious than humorous, but Jadico makes it worthwhile for you to spend two minutes of so with his chatty transformed creature.
Lindsay Smiling creates a frisson of anxiety and danger as a ship captain who believes he’s put something over on Her Majesty Victoria’s government — G-d praise her name. — by taking a chest in which she has alleged interest and replacing it with a chest filled with sand. He seems genuinely threatening to Peter and the Lost Boys and equally disdainful of Molly. Smiling makes his character exciting while maintaining the overall humor Van Horn has established. His is a good, well-measured performance.
Davy Raphaely has a relatively thankless role as the orphan who acts as if he is control long after Peter and Molly have taken over as leaders, O’Rourke’s Peter may be the one who doesn’t want to grow up until he’s enjoyed unbridled freedom, including being able to provide food and shelter for himself, as a boy, but it’s in Raphaely’s Prentiss that you see the soul of the boy who wants to be something and make some kind of mark but is ignored and never gets the chance. Nichalas L. Parker is also deft in roles that don’t garner much attention.
Dan Hodge has the unenviable position of being the one character who remains serious, Molly’s father and Queen Victoria’s emissary. He plays his part with authority and has commanding stage presence, but Hodge never gets a real moment to assert his character or reveal more than a few of his prodigious skills.
Todd Edward Ivins does wonders with his scenic design. All is crowded and clean, especially under J. Dominic Chacon’s bright lights, as Van Horn takes us carefully though “Peter’s” exposition. You see the clutter on the stage, but it doesn’t impinge. Then, action starts, and Ivins and Chacon, individually and as a time, make magic happen with how well they’ve placed the props and costumes character need and create setting ranging from dark, formless ship holds, to raging storms or roiling seas. Ivins gives us interesting things to look at and makes fine use of most of them. Chacon helps to make us believe Peter is underwater or perilous weather threatens all. Mary Folino’s costumes go from the properly conventional to fancies of fun, especially when she gets to create mermaids and native tribespeople. Christopher Collucci’s sound design adds integrally to the proceedings. Van Horn’s is a well knit, well designed show that reminds all an experience in the theater can encompass.
The main joy is this “Peter and the Starcatcher” goes about its storytelling efficiently while never looking deliberate or self-conscious. It’s of a piece. Comedy can be neatly suspended to give tender melodrama its day. Humor is ripe, rampant, and done perfectly. I have seen Elice’s play be a total mess with some moments, usually involving Peter and Molly, that rose above mayhem. Van Horn presents delightful, amusing mayhem, His “Peter and the Starcatcher” glides by, and in a way that lets you admire its parts as well as their sum.
“Peter and the Starcatcher” runs through Sunday, May 1, at the Walnut Street Theatre, 9th and Walnut Streets, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, 7 p.m. Sunday (except for April 17), and 2 p.m. Thursday, Saturday and Sunday. Tickets range for $85 to $20 and can be obtained by calling 215-574-3550 or by visiting www.walnutstreettheatre.org. Grade: A-