Something very unusual is happening on the Kreeger stage. I don’t mean the story, which is one of the world’s most familiar. Rather, that the avant-grade theatre troupe Mabou Mines and the incandescent Karen Kandel are reinventing the very grammar of storytelling in order to open up Peter Pan’s melancholy heart.
To say that they tell it with Bunraku-style puppetry is to immediately relegate it to the world of the fey or the exotic, so let’s not call them puppets. Instead, let’s say that Peter, Hook, Smee and the lost boys are what we always knew they were – figments of Mrs. Darling’s desperate imagination. One “terrible Friday” she came home with her husband from a dinner party to see her three children silhouetted against the sky with another boy, whom she called “Peter Pan”. By the time she was into the house, they had winked out of existence.
We will never know the true events of this terrible Friday. We know that George Darling spoke gruffly to his children, and then exiled the dog from the nursery into the back yard. We know that he and his wife then went to a dinner party and that when they came back the children were gone. Everything after that is, well – art.
What happens to children after they disappear? Why not say that they go to a wonderful island, and have adventures with pirates and ruffians where they always prevail and are never hurt? Why not imagine that they plot to return to their parents, because they never want to forget them? Only remember that Neverland is a place in time, not space, and that its precise location is spelled out in its name. And that the only children who never grow up are the ones who die young.
Here: we are in the Darling nursery, and the astonishing Kandel is telling the Darling children – and us – a story. It is a complicated story, involving many characters, and she slips in and out of them with practiced ease. Then George Darling arrives. Kandel is him, too. George is not a bad guy, just a little pompous and insecure. He envies the affection the children show the dog and thus sends the dog out into the yard. He leaves with his wife for a dinner party – and yet Kandel is still with us. She is with us when the wind blows and shakes the curtains. She is with us when Peter – spritish Puck in a young boy’s clothing – flies through the window looking for his shadow. She becomes Peter, impulsive, headstrong and demanding, with an acid Scottish burr – so much so that you barely notice the trio of masked puppeteers (Eric Wright, Lindsay Ambromatis-Smith, Emily DeCola) who make him scamper and fly. She becomes Wendy, giggling and snorting in that incomparable six-year-old-girl way as Peter fills her head with stories of his improbable island, where time is standing still and the lost boys all need a mother. And finally, she becomes Mrs. Darling, shocked and horrified at what she sees in the sky, and at the hole she feels opening in her heart.
We spend most of Act II in Neverland, and watch Wendy become nursemaid and surrogate mother to the lost boys, all of whom are Kandel, embodied in a gaggle of identical faceless wooden puppets. We join Peter and Wendy as they battle the archenemy, the fearsome pirate Captain Hook, here portrayed by a tall chalk-faced puppet, piloted by Lute Breuer, Jessica Scott, and Matthew Acheson and voiced, of course, by Kandel. Every generation has its own Hook. This one appears to be a foppish depressive. On the evening of his greatest triumph – the successful kidnapping of Wendy and the lost boys – he sits ruminating on the prow of his great ship. “I ask myself – have I been classy today?” and the answer, despite his excellent suit, is always no.
Nana, the faithful dog, assumes the body of a crocodile (Jessica Chandlee Smith; Breuer and DeCola were her puppeteers when she was back at the Darling home) in order to protect her mistress against Hook, and all dangers. When the time comes, she resolves the conflict between Peter and Hook in a startling, if gastronomically satisfying, way.
The inventiveness which Mabou Mines brings to this enterprise is breathtaking. There is no device imaginable which they do not call into the storytelling. An Irish band (Tola Custy, Jay Ansill, Alan Kelly, Stephanie Geremia, and Jerry Busher; vocalists Susan McKeown and Aidan Brenner are the only voices heard onstage other than Kandel) sits by the stage, and plays cheery or sad as needed. There are seven songs, but this is a play with music, not a musical. Mabou Mines is not above using shadow puppetry, and to devastating effect, to show a hill full of wolves over the lost boys’ camp. Duplicates of the Darling home, complete with shadow mothers and shadow children, pop up unexpectedly, and in full bloom. Boxes turn into beds, and beds into tables, with a sort of easy grace – with the same easy grace as Kandel turns into her nation of characters.
All of this proceeds, I must tell you, with the speed of a glacier. Don’t think of Peter & Wendy as a ride on a 747. Instead, imagine yourself on an ocean liner. You’re sitting in a chair designed for your comfort, breathing the sweet salt air. Occasionally Placido Domingo will sit down next to you and sing you a little song. Every half hour or so, a server will come by and offer you some lobster crudités, or refill your glass of Dom Perignon. Three hours later, you can still see your home port in the distance, but it doesn’t matter. It’s a little like Neverland. You like where you are, and you’re in no rush to get home.
Special note: Ms. Kandel’s last performance will be May 27. Marcia Stephanie Blake steps into the role beginning with the May 29 performance.
Adapted by Liza Lorwin from the play and novel Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie
Produced by Ms. Lorwin and Mabou Mines for Arena Stage
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
(Running time: 2 hours 50 minutes with one intermission.) Peter & Wendy continues Tuesdays through Sundays until June 24. Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday shows will be at 7.30 with the following exceptions: Tuesday, May 8 and Wednesday May 30, will be at noon, and Sunday, June 17, will be at 6 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays will be at 8, except that the following Saturday dates will be at 2: May 5 and 19, and June 2 and 9. There will be additional Sunday matinees at 2 except for June 17. Tickets run from $55 to $74 and may be had by calling 202.488.3300 or visiting the website