Novelist Ridley Pearson sat down to read his daughters J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan without much luck. Not because the girls weren’t interested, but the youngest kept interrupting and wanted to know how Peter became an eternal boy, how he met Captain Hook, and when did Tinkerbell figure into the plot? Pearson was in a band called the Rock Bottom Remainders with horror author Stephen King and funnyman Dave Barry. Barry joined Pearson’s quest, and together they wrote a best-selling series that answers the origins of the famous Pan. Now Portland Playhouse has gathered all of their starstuff and staged the multiple award-winning play Peter and the Starcatcher.
It’s a well-sailed ship. The first thing to notice in the old church/playhouse that Portland Playhouse calls home is the meticulously detailed toy pirate ships dotting the stage. The white curtain is a mast with metal loops for rigging, but it has a soft blue glow like an ocean wave or the night sky reflecting the tiny distant suns in the sea wake. Front and center are silver clamshell lights, the kind you would have seen in the 19th century, which gave off the glow of the limelights. There’s an old magic in the air; you can almost feel a Ouija board summoning of the ancient spirits of Gilbert and Sullivan.
We begin our history lesson in a sad and bleak Dickens vision where all the good grown-ups are jumping ship, leaving behind the nasty and distrustful. A trio of orphans – “the most useless creatures on earth,” named Boy, Ted, and Prentiss – are aboard. Ted (Chip Sherman) has an empty vortex of a stomach. Prentiss (Quinn Fitzgerald) dons a woolen cap too big for his head and is the self-proclaimed leader of the group. Boy (Nick Ferrucci), who has curly dark black locks, also has a temper against all the grown-ups and a slight impish look. The fourth child sailing on a ship they call the Neverland is the higher-born and more esoterically schooled Molly, played by Jen Rowe. Molly has good posture, and is full of common sense, which at times is overturned by curiosity. Because this is a good story, a children’s story, the four will overcome great odds, make a mess of a situation into a quest, and crown a few heroes by play’s end.
The best of children’s lit isn’t just words sprinkled for young ears, but rather a concentration of perfect plot and character that illustrates the supreme worlds of imagination battling against boring grown-up life. Looney Tunes, William Goldman’s Princess Bride, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series and hundreds more entertain and inspire young audiences and their taller counterparts with a quick wit. Peter and the Starcatcher carries on the torch, not only in its printed version, but through the play as well.
The stage directions mimic playroom reenactments of favorite stories, using any prop that can be found, people included, to make the heroes’ journey come alive. The sailing ships knock the characters back, through, over and under against the waves of the sea, and in and out of days. Ropes and people are rooms, doors, tunnels and caverns. Sea legs make an unsteady rhythm; salty air stakes out the atmosphere.
Slightly to left of stage in Portland Playhouse’s Peter are Eric Nordin on piano and Alexandra Geffl on percussion, hidden by a half-curtain like the one in The Wizard of Oz. They create a music-box type of accompaniment, and here and there a few sound effects, to help the actors on their quest.
We wait in suspense for Peter Pan to take his place on the wooden boards, but in the meantime there’s trouble on the high seas. You may have heard of Black or Blue Beard the pirates, but the most feared name on everybody’s lips is Black Stache. Because this is a sea tale, the play gets a little bawdy: there’s an inevitable element of potty humor, and Barry’s play on words helps the audience relive stomach cramps from laughing. The evil Black Stache is on the hunt for a treasure chest, naturally, and in this mixed-up screwball comedy of events proclaims it’s “as elusive as a melody in a Philip Glass opera.”
Fear not, modern parents, there’s a sensitivity in Peter and the Starcatcher. When we do arrive on the island that will become famous for its forever-young inhabitants, no stereotyping will be found. The natives are in fact led by a former Italian house chef who poo-pooed being captured and was sold into manicotti-manufacturing slavery.
Directors Rebecca Lingafelter and Brian Weaver take us from a coal-black dystopia to a gossamer future. Just as with a good book, in the play we travel into our own imaginations. We see the players acting, and feel the transformations of the children, and this is the enchanting quality of Peter and the Starcatcher. When Molly, in her patrician speech, describes the molten Mt. Jalapeño as the passengers’ final destination, we sense the ultimate fire and burning of the hottest elements on earth. Molly is the one who also warns the children of Black Stache. She describes him as the ultimate evil: worse than a Genghis Kahn or Julius Caesar, rather like the most wicked of all creatures, an Ayn Rand.
Isaac Lamb is a swashbuckling skull-and-bones brigade as Black Stache. His ringside duel with captain Slank (Duffy Epstein) starts as a rowdy boys’ battle that takes place (long ago and far away, but not now, since schoolyard fights aren’t the best way to solve a problem) at the flagpole. Sure, there are a few hints they may try some knuckle-breaking boxing, but in a brilliant move, they take the higher road and have a contest of words: two Roald Dahls facing off in the ring. Lines are thrown in place of punches, such as name-calling Slank a “bathtub captain.”
Watching Peter and the Starcatcher is like reliving the days of box juices and dandelions: we go back and appreciate the goodnesses of active play in a loving tribute to the roots of theater. How was Peter Pan made a boy? When did Tink come into the picture? How did the crocodile get his tick-tock sound? You’ll have to go to find out.
Peter and the Starcatcher continues through May 29 at Portland Playhouse. Ticket and schedule information here.