In truth, I never before thought of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan as a particularly masculine, or anti-feminist, story. Most of us have warm recollections of the far-off Neverland, reached only by fairy dust-fueled-flight and teeming with pirates, fairies, mermaids and princesses. Yet, as with many childhood memories revisited in adulthood, the classic tale isn’t as harmless—or timeless—as it seems.
In fact, the female characters in Barrie’s imaginative sphere occupy the uncomfortably limited roles of mother (Wendy), nymphet (Tinkerbell) and victim (Tiger Lily). Each, along with a lagoon-full of mermaids, share a slavish, almost-predatory adoration of Peter, alternately fawning and fighting for his attention and affections. Not exactly the best role models for the next generation of modern women.
In her new adaption, Peter Pan and Wendy (who finally gets the top billing she deserves), playwright Lauren Gunderson sets these shop-worn stereotypes on their heads in gleeful fashion. The result is a production that is every bit as magical and entrancing: both to traditionalists and the young theatergoers who giggled and cheered, unaware that they were witnessing something both old and new.
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Gunderson’s story follows the arc of the original stage play, opening on a London nursery at the turn of the 19th century. As her parents bustle about, preparing for a posh evening on the town, eldest sister Wendy (Sinclair Daniel) learns it will be her last night abed in the nursery with brothers John (Christopher Flaim) and Michael (a positively darling Chauncey Chestnut). Wendy must move to a room of her own: one more suited to a young lady about to enter finishing school to fulfill her destiny of becoming a “warm wife and doting mother.”
But Wendy has aspirations of her own: to follow in the footsteps of the then-current day scientific phenom Marie Curie. When Peter Pan (Justin Mark) steals into the nursery in search of his shadow, this Wendy is not waiting with ‘bated breath, but rightfully accosts the intruder. To his tales of the “freedoms” of Neverland, Wendy applies a scientist’s skepticism and follows Peter to the far-off land not due to a teenage crush, but to conduct a “scientific experiment,” to determine if his claims are true.
Peter Pan and Wendy closes January 12, 2020. Details and tickets
Daniel is the perfect balance of charm and gumption as Wendy and treats Peter more like her younger brothers than an opportunity for romance. Chin held high, Daniel maintains a quiet confidence and dignified command over the lost boys, never “mothering” them (she is emphatic that she is not a mother). Mark, as Peter Pan, also modernizes the role in subtle form. Still the jaunty, exuberant boy who will never grow up, Marks nonetheless adds a kind of world-weary snark to the role. Gunderson’s dialogue—which shares little if any lines in common with the original—allows him the occasional sarcastic aside that paints Pan as modern teenager.
Tinkerbell, (Jenni Barber who also plays Mrs. Darling and who is clearly having the most fun of her career on stage) finally gets a voice and is not afraid to use it. Like a wronged girlfriend on Jerry Springer, Tink has no room in her life for this winsome Wendy-girl and will do whatever it takes to remove her from Peter’s sights. Dressed in a full-out gold lame and glitter, Barber’s Tinkerbell is neither dainty nor sweet, and she’s not playing.
Tiger Lily (Isabella Star LaBlanc) gets an extremely modern makeover, from a helpless Native American princess to an outspoken revolutionary. While Wendy remains the picture of upper-crust decorum—dressed in a floor-length white nightdress, hair pulled back in a ribbon (costumes by Loren Shaw)—Tiger Lily is the picture of a renegade anime heroine. Baggy pants cinched with an oversized belt, a long cape-like vest falls almost to her rugged boots and sweeps out behind her as she moves, giving her an almost vampirish air. Her long dark hair is pulled into a high ponytail to reveal the streaks of blues and purples beneath. Gunderson imbues Tiger Lily with the righteous bitterness of a native whose land has been overtaken by white settlers (Peter and Captain Hook, played by Derek Smith) and who, she quite frankly states, are ruining it, destroying the peace with their childish sword fights and petty vendettas.
Hook, too, seems a bit weary of Peter’s shenanigans. Styled more as a greedy CEO (like his counterpart Mr. Darling, also played by Smith) than a vengeful villain, Hook seems to regard the crocodile (an enormous, squeal-inducing puppet that spills from both stage wings) as the true obstacle to his goals and Peter merely an annoyance. Smee (Tom Story) is a far cleverer sidekick. Hook’s “yes-man,” Smee both dotes on, and pines for, Hook; Smithers to The Simpsons’ Mr. Burns.
I would be remiss not to mention Nana, the Darlings’ dog nanny and a clear audience favorite. Normally played by a human in a dog costume, this Nana is a real life, in-the-fur, dog. Bailey, trained by William Berlioni (who found and trained the original “Sandy” in Broadway’s Annie) is an adorable addition and heightens the audience’s excitement with each entrance and exit.
Truly every technical aspect of this production—among them, the gorgeously crafted sets, Isabella Byrd and Hared Mezzochi’s ingeniously clever lighting and projection design, and the complexity of the flying and fighting choreography (Katie Spelman, Paul Rubin and David Leong)—is top notch and on par with any Broadway performance. With a story that appeals to nearly every generation (the theater suggests ages 5 and up) and a total running time of just around 2 hours with one intermission, Peter Pan and Wendy is a must-see this holiday season.
Peter Pan and Wendy. Based on the play by J.M. Barrie. Adapted by Lauren Gunderson. Directed by Alan Paul. Featuring Jenni Barber, Chauncey Chestnut, Sinclair Daniel, Christopher Flaim, Isabella Star LaBlanc, Justin Mark, Derek Smith and Tom Story. Composer Jenny Giering. Scenic Designer Jason Sherwood .Costume Designer Loren Shaw. Lighting Designer Isabella Byrd. Sounds Designer John Gromada. Projection Designer Jared Mezzochi. Puppet Designer James Ortiz. Flying Sequence Choreographer Paul Rubin. Fight Choreographer David Leong. Choreographer Katie Spelmen. Produced by Shakespeare Theatre Company . Reviewed by Meaghan Hannan Davant.
I would use it as a learning moment. (I took my son to see it and he is entirely unscathed.). You could say, “They way this play has made you feel is how women have been made to feel for their entire history. So, how do you grow up to be different than Peter and Captain Hook?
Tyler Brown says
We took our son to see this and it took him three days to recover his self-esteem, helped by a viewing of the 1953 Disney version. The “one girl is worth 20 boys” refrain (I forget the exact number) made its mark. Big yes to girl power, but does it have to be at the expense of boys? The old zero-sum fallacy? That Wendy, Tiger Lily and Tinker Bell form a triumvirate of competence and courage amidst bumbling boys and hapless pirates, and that Peter and Hook are guilty of the same sin; lust for power, leave the impression to a child that girls are good and boys are bad. If the original is anti-feminine, does the adaptation have to be anti-masculine?