Peter and the Starcatcher: An Excellent Production of a Flawed Script (3.5 stars)
by Johnny Monsarrat
Peter and the Starcatcher, by Rick Elice, based on the novel by Dave Barry & Ridley Pearson, music by Wayne Barker, directed by Spiro Veloudos, music director Catherine Stornetta, choreography by Ilyse Robbins at the Lyric Stage from May 20 to June 26, 2016.
Peter and the Starcatcher is a prequel to the Peter Pan story, but intended for adults, with swashbuckling adventure and great comedy. In 1885, we meet a young girl, Molly (Erica Spyres), who becomes separated from her very British father and nanny, and lost among the Lost Boys and pirates at sea. While she chases after a missing treasure over the ocean, we learn the origin of Peter Pan and other characters such as Captain Hook.
The production itself is fantastic. The entire cast takes on the crazy stunts with gusto, completely committed to the insanity, and the humor is laugh out loud funny. Kudos to Ed Hoopman (Black Stache) who steals the show with physical comedy and puns paying homage to Groucho Marx and the era of vaudeville. By playing up the ego of his character, he sells the machinations and often unwise decisions of the villain of the play. Yet amongst the silliness, there is enough serious intent to add an element of danger. Further kudos to Margarita Damaris Martinez who plays what I believe is supposed to be an African native with a silly accent that avoids a racial disparagement.
The costume design by Elisabetta Polito reaches a great height when the entire cast shows up as mermaids, and the lighting design by Frank Meissner was transformative when two characters gaze wistfully up into the stars at night.
The nicest thing I can say about Peter and the Starcatcher is that you must appreciate it as a surreal romp perhaps more inspired by the original Peter Pan story than connected to it, with wonderful dance and antics. This is because the script is a mess. The plot is too fast-paced, complicated, and confusing. At one point a ship sinks and I didn’t realize that it had happened. I’m still not sure of the logistics when one of the Lost Boys (Marc Pierre), sits atop an empty treasure chest and confronts a pirate (Ed Hoopman). How did the Lost Boy end up on the same ship as that trunk? Aren’t they supposed to be on the other ship? Why is Smee a mermaid in one scene?
Unfortunately the production adds to the confusion by having a dozen actors play some 40 characters, without stark costume differences to differentiate them. All the actors crowd the small stage in almost every scene, which is also confusing, and some play cross-gender, which I’ve got no problem with, but in a production whose characters are mostly male… let real women play the few prominent female roles.
Confusion is also generated because the scenery changes little. There’s nothing wrong with sparse scenery, but then it must be explained in the dialogue what is happening. The staging of the two ships seemed identical… a nuance like displaying different flags for each ship would have helped. There is a very creative use of rope by scenic designer Janie Howland to form doors, waves, and even a monster, but when the audience is feeling confused… abstract set design doesn’t help them follow what is happening. The crocodile is where in relation to the actors? Where are the natives in relation to the actors being chased?
So much happens in the play, and there are so many subplots for minor characters, that the stars of the show, Molly and Peter, lack depth. What emotional arcs do exist are diluted by the script continually breaking the fourth wall. For example, narration is heavy and dominates important moments, such as when two characters’ eyes lock. Instead of letting the actors create chemistry in a quiet and poignant moment, a narrator interrupts with, “The boy’s eyes began to sparkle!” Also, when a cat does something amazing, we can’t experience the wonder of it because the narration tells us repeatedly how amazing it is, pulling us out of the story.
There’s only so much winking at the audience that a story can take and stay compelling. The script also winks with its many pop culture references. It’s humorous to break the 19th century genre, but not this often, and pop culture humor rarely hits hard. For example, one pirate says that searching for a trunk is “as elusive as a melody in a Philip Glass opera”. That metaphor isn’t clever, doesn’t fit the Peter Pan genre, and relates in no way to the scene. It feels stapled on.
Events INSIDER accepts no advertisements. We work only to support the arts. So I take no pleasure in saying this, but the major plot arcs in the script do not work at all. I don’t know why the father would ever let his daughter sail on a separate ship with strangers, and the reason given is deus ex machina. In a violent gale you can’t forcibly board another ship or jump overboard and survive.
Peter Pan is supposed to resist growing up, yet there is a romance plot in the play (a grown-up concept), and by the end Peter Pan wants to leave with the adults (to be a grown-up). The future Captain Hook makes an unbelievably forced decision at the end that ends his plot unsatisfyingly, and the chance is lost for him to have a big chase scene with the crocodile that might set up his being so afraid of the crocodile in the Peter Pan story to come. What ultimately happens at the end of the story between Peter Pan and Molly (before the time leap forward) also feels forced, and is something neither Molly nor Peter seem to want.
There’s a reason why, even though it’s in the original books, Disney in its 1953 animated adaptation dropped some of the darkness (someone gets branded in the show with a hot iron, and others get enslaved), to keep the story childlike and pure of heart. Disney also dropped having 13-year-old boys require a 13-year-old girl to play “mother” to them, because it’s weird. With the romance plot added in, now she’s a friend, a sister, a mother, and a lover. She’s also told that “girls can’t be leaders”. I wouldn’t call the play overtly misogynist, but the authors of Peter and the Starcatcher missed an opportunity to modernize the Peter Pan story to give equal importance to women, and to make it more pure-hearted.
Most importantly, it’s hard to bond with the main characters. Molly is a bossy know-it-all with too much worldy wisdom and discipline for her age. Which character becomes Peter Pan is only revealed halfway through the show, and it’s unsatisfying to find that his moral goodness is learned from Molly, not innate, in a transition that only gets two dialogue lines of depth. How Peter gets his name is supposed to be profound but holds no emotional resonance. Peter becomes magical in a way that is accidental, not related to any character strength or transition or heightened moment of tension in the play.
(Stupid asides: the author of the original Peter Pan story, J. M. Barrie, wrote a prequel which seems unrelated to Peter and the Starcatcher. The islanders on Neverland Island are Native Americans, not Africans, if I got that accent right. Slavery was abolished in Britain 50 years before the story is set.)
Taken as a surreal experience with great physical comedy, the play satisfies. There are wild antics, people and animals flying, and even characters speaking to each other in animal languages! I would tremendously like to give five stars to the Lyric Stage for originality with brave artistic risks. But the production could have been tailored to ameliorate the structural flaws in the script, and it was not. I am sorry that I can only give Peter and the Starcatcher 3.5 stars.
See the show at www.lyricstage.com.