Saturday, May 14, 2011

Fly To See This “Peter and Wendy”

For as long as I can remember, the well-known characters created by James M. Barrie over a hundred years ago—Peter Pan, Tinker Bell, Captain Hook and the Darling family—have been tangled up with my sense of self. That may sound dramatic, but hear me out. At age four, in what must have been one of my earliest public performances, I played Tink in a pre-school version of Barrie’s play. Just a few years later, I saw Sandy Duncan play Peter in a revival of the Broadway musical. I’ve seen several film adaptations—Disney’s cartoon, a 1924 silent, the 2003 version and, of course, Spielberg’s “sequel,” Hook—and was even a devoted fan of the animated TV series, Peter Pan & the Pirates, which ran in the early 1990s. And have I mentioned the book? Published in 1911 after Barrie’s stage play made the title character a household name, Peter and Wendy, later re-titled simply Peter Pan, is arguably among the funniest and yet most poignant novels ever written. Reading it as a teen, when I thought I already knew everything there was to know about the story, was a revelation. For kids, it’s magical; for adults, it’s like being allowed back into childhood again, just for a moment.

Despite my fondness for the flying boy and his crew, I acknowledge that not all versions of his tale are created equal. That said, I am sure I will never see a finer adaptation of the material than Mabou Mines’ Peter and Wendy. Using the novel (and its original title) as their starting point, this illustrious New York-based theater collective began developing the show in the early ‘90s (around the same time I was religiously videotaping Peter Pan & the Pirates) and first presented the finished product in 1996. Since then, they have performed it around the U.S. and internationally; it’s enjoying a much too brief return engagement at the New Victory Theater in Times Square. Original cast members and collaborators Basil Twist, Lute Breuer, and Karen Kandel are back as well.

Kandel, who has won numerous awards for her portrayal of the Narrator, gives a performance that is nothing short of miraculous. On stage for the entire running time (a whopping 2 ½ hours), she not only tells the story, but voices every character—yes, every one: Peter, Wendy, Mr. and Mrs. Darling, Hook, Smee, and even Nana the dog. (As usual, Tinker Bell is just … well, a bell.) The only other voices we hear are those of the off-stage singers who perform the original songs created for the production—simple, beautiful tunes that draw on author Barrie’s Scottish heritage. Interacting with Kandel, who embodies Wendy, the Darlings, and Indian princess Tiger Lily, is a company of astonishing puppeteers who bring to life all the other residents of Neverland, including a Captain Hook who closely resembles Lex Luthor, a tangoing Crocodile, and Peter himself, who here looks much more like an ordinary boy than the leaf-clad lad other versions have shown us. They also help create the many locations of the story, from the Darling nursery to the Jolly Roger and back.

At the Saturday matinee I attended, I was amazed at how little noise there was in the house during the show. After all, we were at a children’s theater, and the performance is on the long side. Either the kids in the audience that afternoon were extraordinarily mature and well behaved, or they were as entranced by what was happening on stage as I was. It’s obvious that the piece remains fresh for the company, despite the many years they have been performing it; as the play reached its bittersweet conclusion, Kandel’s voice broke, and tears ran freely down her face.

Maybe, like me, you have an extra-soft spot for the conceited, forgetful boy who would not grow up, or maybe Sleeping Beauty or (heaven help us) Spider-Man is more your speed. In either case, you owe it to yourself, and any youngsters you have lying around, to catch this unique and extraordinary production before it leaves us (again) on May 22. Like Peter himself, it may be back again one day, but who knows when? — Regina Robbins

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