Friday, May 6, 2011

"Peter Pan" soars in new tech-heavy production

Peter Pan
Through June 19
Chicago Tribune Freedom Center, 650 W. Chicago

To borrow a tag line from "Superman," you will believe a boy can fly in The threesixty° Theatre's production of  "Peter Pan."

The moment when the boy who wouldn't grow up (a mischievous and boyish Ciaran Joyce as the title character) and the Darling clan (Evelyn Hoskins, Tom Larkin and Scott Weston as Wendy, John and Michael respectively; adult actors who are completely believable as children) fly through their open nursery window and quickly soar through 400 square miles of a nighttime Edwardian London is a truly memorable bit of theater spectacle.

It's all made possible by the custom-built tent that serves as the theater space and its circular, convex movie screen on which a dozen projectors envelop the audience in the 360 degree, panoramic view. It is breathtaking, but distracting. I was pulled out of the story of Pan and the Darling children who run away in search of Neverland adventures as I imagined what directors will be able to do as this technology evolves (and mark my words, it will happen). I found myself welcoming the show's relatively low-tech puppets employed in the production.

These include the Darling's beloved Newfoundland dog (and nursemaid) Nana, a gawky ostrich and the ticking crocodile that appears to have been fashioned out of the skeleton of an abandoned go-kart and a summer or two's worth of popsicle sticks. The latter, though decidedly low-tech and manipulated by lead puppeteer Joshua Holden, still sufficiently scared a few youngsters when the beast jutted its head out into the audience, growled and then burped.

Tanya Ronder's adaptation of JM Barrie's beloved story (itself based on Barrie's own 1904 stage play) doesn't stray too far from its origins. The look and tone are steeped in equal parts traditional English pantomime (little known here outside of fans of Evanston's Piccolo Theatre Ensemble) and (perhaps more familiar to a Yank audience) children's theater.  Peter, the Darling children and the rest of the orphan Lost Boys (the terrific local actor Darren Barrere as Tootles, along with Lee Turnbull, Ben Adams and Keith Richards) encounter an Indian (Heidi Buehler as Tiger Lily), mermaids (Kasumi Kato and Amanda Goble who perform some great aerial silk work) and, of course, a motley band of pirates lead by the villainous Captain Hook (Steven Pacey, who also plays Mr. Darling, Hook's less villainous but bumbling real-world counterpart).

As Tinkerbell, the jealous and mischievous fairy who competes with Wendy for Peter's affections (which Peter never returns), Emily Yetter is one punkish pixie who captures your heart. Her near death scene is one of the few emotional moments in the show.

In keeping true to the original work and less to the sanitized Disney version that most American parents are familiar, there is actually bloodshed in this "Pan." Hook's metal appendage is used to slit one pirate's throat and another crew member is forced by the captain to commit hari kari after his mutinous plot goes awry. Michael Darling also almost drowns when a mermaid tries to drag him to the bottom of the sea.

Parents  should be aware of these elements which may frighten younger children. I didn't mind the sense of danger (Have you ever actually read the original Grimm's Fairy Tales? They'll keep you up at night). Most kids will gloss over the violence in the play (which is mostly played for laughs, anyway). They are more focused on taking their own evening flights through the skies of Neverland.

Ronder includes the epilogue Barrie tacked onto his original work as the play's final moment. In it, Peter Pan returns to the Darling home only to find that Wendy has grown up and has a child of her own. The play ends with Peter bowing to the child (Rachel Lien) and you know Wendy will soon be filled with a mother's anguish as another nighttime flight is eminent.

And it's just slightly unsettling. To quote Brom, the artist and author of The Child Thief, the disturbing, modern retelling of the story, "the idea of an immortal boy hanging about nursery windows and seducing children away from their families for the sake of his ego and to fight his enemies is at the very least disturbing."

Yes, what was once a childhood dream is now every parents' nightmare.  Children should relish this flight of fancy. Adults will probably tuck the little ones in a bit tighter when the next bedtime rolls around.

And make sure those nursery room windows are locked.

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