Peter Pan always did seem like a rather difficult creature, as far as immortals go. Anyone with such a steadfast refusal to mature or learn anything useful can’t be entirely pleasant to be around for that long – and remember that, unlike most eternal beings, Pan is this way because he chooses to be, because he rejects the real world, not because he’s been cursed or wished upon or any such thing. With that attitude, any wonder one of J.M. Barrie’s abandoned titles for his 1904 play was Peter Pan: The Boy Who Hated Mothers?
Now the three-season-old No Rules Theatre Company, by appropriating this menacing moniker in the world premiere of their own original-ish take on the Barrie classic, has signified a willingness to embrace the brattier, more psychologically unstable elements of the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up. Writer-director Michael Lluberes, like many other professional fairy-tale fracturers before him, sees potential in distorting someone whom our own childhoods once convinced us was pure and ideal.
And in the early going, we see how this potential pays off. As the play opens we have entered the bedroom of the Darling family, with its creaky rocking horses and hand-sewn dolls, at the moment the family loses its innocence. Wendy and John’s younger brother, Michael, has died as a baby, in a nod to Barrie’s own brother Daniel, who passed at age 14. Mrs. Darling, played by Lisa Hodsoll in smeared eyeliner and a black gothic dress, buries Michael beneath the room’s floorboards. And once she promises her remaining children that she will keep them safe, in bursts Peter as though summoned from the underworld by Michael’s thrill-seeking ghost, to whisk them to a treacherous place far, far away from her guidance.
As Peter, New York transplant John Evans Reese is a menacing figure, with a stubbornness and sense of entitlement overtaking the character’s more impish, whimsical qualities. It’s shrewd casting for a role typically played by a female on stage — to hell with gentility. Reese, expelling testosterone in all directions, lurches about the squeak-prone set slamming his palms on the floor like a chimpanzee. He’s angry, and he’s confused, and he refuses to let Wendy (Megan Graves, in a wonderful wide-eyed performance) or anyone else insinuate that he might be better off in slightly more stable living conditions. Ironically, Peter seems to be behaving in the manner of an adolescent, which would make him a bit older than someone who supposedly still possesses all of his baby teeth. Maybe he’s grown a bit, after all.
It’s a fantastic opening, but one that perhaps sets our standards a bit too high. In truth, though No Rules is pushing The Boy Who Hated Mothers as a “radically fresh” retelling of the classic, once the rhythm sets in, the children have nowhere to go but back to Neverland. The play, then, has nowhere to go but along the same fault lines as the original: The Lost Boys and abandonment issues, Captain Hook (Hodsoll again) and the ticking clock, Tinkerbell and “I do believe in fairies”. Everything’s a bit darker – Hook will vocalize hatred for Peter in a rather ghastly way, say, or Wendy and John (Joshua Rosenblum) will pause to remember their dead brother – but there seems a general reluctance on the part of No Rules to … well … break the rules.
The production’s technical aspects, particularly the shadowplay-heavy lighting by Carrie Wood and the set design by Daniel Pinha, are a standout on the rather puny H Street Playhouse stage. (When all seven cast members are present, the space feels about to burst from the activity.) The blood-stained wall of the Darling bedroom reveals scores of wonders within its hidden compartments: a portal to Neverland, a window to the stars. Bedframes can become pirate ships; an upturned desk can become Marooner’s Rock. It’s fun not only because the company transforms the space with relatively little effort, but because we really believe in the stage’s imaginative power.
The No Rules website pegs the play, somewhat boldly, as appropriate for ages 10 and up. That’s only true for half of the production – the half that reproduces Barrie’s original words, which is unevenly spread in-between gorier reimaginings. A child attending The Boy Who Hated Mothers expecting to bask in the magic of flight and fairy dust will no doubt be frightened by Hook’s bloodlust and all the talk of mortality. He or she may elect to clutch Mother’s hand a bit tighter on the way back home.
Peter Pan: The Boy Who Hated Mothers runs through March 3 at the H Street Playhouse, 1365 H Street NE Washington, DC.
Peter Pan: The Boy Who Hated Mothers
Adapted and directed by Michael Lluberes
Based on Peter Pan: The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up by J.M. Barrie
Produced by No Rules Theatre Company
Reviewed by Andrew Lapin
Running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes with one intermission