The essence of the Peter Pan story is simple: There’s a special power associated with imagination and play, and most adults have either forgotten or rejected it. “Peter and the Starcatcher,“ the new production from the Arkansas Repertory Theatre, opens with a sort of invocation from the ensemble, asking audiences to join in using their imaginations to explore the origins of the Pan universe and all its inhabitants.
“It’s a communal experience in storytelling and imagination,” says Patrick Halley, who plays the classic henchman Smee. “It’s the same world you know, but a different doorway into it.” Faith Sandberg, who plays Molly (a character who takes on a role similar to that of the original Wendy), compares it to how “Wicked” explored the “Oz” characters in greater depth. ”This is the story of love, adventure and how people find themselves in the face of adversity,” says Bruce Warren, who plays Molly’s nanny as well as a few other characters. “The play will turn some of the things you thought you knew about these characters on their head.”
“When we play it for big houses, it’s a thrill ride,” says Hugh Kennedy, who plays Black Stache, a pirate who hasn’t yet earned his more well-known nickname. “It’s a testament to the cast and to how well written the play is.”
Warren described the play as using a unique form of storytelling. Halley adds, “Imagine a group of kids who come across a shipwreck, and they utilize anything they can to play and create this story, and the audience is invited to join.”
Here, in place of the expansive sets of last year’s “Little Mermaid,” you have a simple stage and basic props, ropes, ladders, sort of like an old playground that your imagination transforms into whatever you want — in this case, a pirate ship.
“There are magical moments built right into the set,” Sandberg says, describing the detailed carvings on the proscenium, made from real valentines mailed out by sailors in the 19th century. “Some of the wood is reclaimed from a barn built in the early 1800s,” she added. “There’s so much history just in the set itself.”
In line with the themes of several of the Rep’s plays this season (“Spelling Bee” and “Little Mermaid,” notably), this is a story for both children and adults to appreciate. Some of the humor and references might be lost on younger kids, but they’ll certainly love the make-believe aspects and, of course, the pirate action.
“For Molly, it’s her last adventure before she goes home and grows up,” Sandberg says, “so she’s learning lessons about love, about what is home, and if some things are worth what you’re willing to give up for them. We all start with a sense of play and imagination, and when you learn loss along the way, you can either choose to keep that sense of play or not.”
“Starcatcher” is pretty big at the moment; it’s the second-most produced play in the country this season, according to the folks atThe Rep. It’s also being read by many students across the country and locally as well, so this is a great chance for them to get to see literature come alive onstage.
“It’s a love letter to the theater, coming from our hearts, and so much of us is going into this, ” Sandberg said. “Yes, and if people don’t come see it, we’ll feed them to the crocodile,” Warren joked.
“Peter and the Starcatcher” opens Friday, Jan. 22, and plays through Sunday, Feb. 14. More info is available at therep.org/attend/productions/peterandthestarcatcher.