Theater is inherently pretend. People stand on stages and use objects and structures to pretend to be things that they’re not and tell a story that is either fictional, or a fictionalized version of something real. It’s make believe. But that’s a wonderful thing. That’s what makes theatrical spaces so exciting: the pretend. It makes things playful and abstract, allowing reality to bend in beautiful and surprising ways.
Performed last week in the reverse-house of the ’92 Theater, “Peter and the Starcatcher,” directed by Ryan Dobrin ’18, makes expert use of the playfulness of theatrical space. His production is both abstract and accessible, and his team and cast of 12 actors make mountains (and sailboats, and streams, and islands) out of molehills. While “Peter” is a script that encourages this kind of abstraction, Dobrin and co. take it to new levels. The set is just a few chests and a large ladder, the costumes mostly black, non-descript clothing. It’s laudable, and it’s great fun.
“Peter and the Starcatcher,” a play adapted by Rick Elice (with songs by Wayne Barker) from a book by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, is one part “Peter Pan” prologue, one part musical, one part comedy of language, and several parts wistfulness. The plot, too sprawling and messy to truly summarize, centers on a vaguely familiar orphan (Miles Brooks ’20) sold into slavery on a ship called the “Neverland,” on which he encounters a girl named Molly (Vienna Kaylan ’19). They learn that the ship contains a treasure chest full of “starstuff,” the magical dust that comes from fallen stars, and Molly, an “apprentice Starcatcher,” enlists the boy and two other orphans (Ava Grob ’20 and Ali Felman ’17) to help protect it from the forces of greed and evil in the world, most notably the pirate captain Black Stache (Charlie Barrett ’19), a fast-talking, malapropism-prone rogue who, as of now, has both of his hands. Eventually these characters, as well as at least a dozen other pirates, English lords, cooks, and nannies, end up stranded on an island, where their fates will forever be intertwined. The script is aggressively metatheatrical and silly; there are jokes nearly every minute: in-jokes, language jokes, fourth wall jokes, joking references to the source material. This strange, humorous, densely packed text can be frustratingly busy, but it can also be spellbinding, warm, and lovely. Thanks to the work of this cast and crew, it is far more the latter than the former.
Dobrin stages his play with every single member of the 11-person cast on stage at nearly all times (and when they are not, they’re just to the side, out in the open, watching). This cleverly gives every actor, even if they aren’t a significant part of the scene, a shining moment, be it as a pirate, a mermaid, or, even in some cases, a prop. Human props are wonderful if the props have personality, and here, they do. Doors can beckon characters to open them; storms can make bodies thrash like the drop at a rave. It’s a smart decision, one that, aided with minimal but expressive lighting and sound design, and the pulse of a three-piece band of Camille De Beus ’19, Becket Cerny ’19, Music Director Daphne Gampel ’19, with Zack Hersh ’20 as a substitute, aids the show in flowing breezily through most scenes and transitions. Theater can be such a competitive space, and the involvement of such a massive cast in a show that feels light is both generous and collaborative.
It is impossible to name and single out every member of the “Peter” cast, though it is an excellent ensemble, so for the sake of this review I will focus on the leads. Brooks and Kaylan are a well matched pair. The script shades their relationship cleverly and vividly, painting them as two contradictory but complementary individuals. The boy is clearly intelligent, charming, and different, but when we first see him, hope has been beaten out of him, and he is closed off to everyone and everything. Molly is his equal, if not better, in intelligence and skill, but as a young girl born in privilege, hers is the more vivid imagination and bright personality. As a character she is impossibly high-energy, excited and excitable, smart, and a little grating in her competitiveness and wisdom beyond her years. Dobrin’s casting of Brooks and Kaylan shows an impressive understanding of the energy of onstage relationships. Kaylan’s Molly is a precise, large personality, playing with a wide range of emotional and comedic beats, absolutely committed whether shouting about the way the world is or translating fake Norse, and Brooks is earnestness incarnate, all wide eyes and curious stares. His earnest reacting may not have the same energy as Kaylan’s bigger performance, but as a pair they are well matched and expertly performed.
Rounding out the core characters is Barrett’s Black Stache, another younger version of an iconic character. Black Stache is written entirely in eccentricities, pop culture references, speedy patter, and mispronounced and misused words. He is almost more a punchline generator than a character, occasionally to the character’s detriment, but Barrett, in a credible fake-English accent, does a good job making the eccentricities work. He doesn’t have the emotional core of his co-leads, but he’s damn fun to watch, and Barrett relishes every clipped syllable and rapid-fire monologue.
Ultimately, “Peter and the Starcatcher” is a smartly created, fun to watch version of a sprawling, smart play. In stripping the thing down, highlighting actors, and moving through a lot of dense material quickly and efficiently, Dobrin has given Wesleyan a very good Second Stage production. It makes you want to make believe for a little while.