Over the years, the only thing that’s really stuck with me about the Peter Pan story is how we grapple with the need to maintain childlike wonder and innocence when time sullies purity and makes the past joys of youth enviable. It was always hard, knowing that Wendy Darling had grown up and had a daughter of her own while Peter lost track of time in Neverland, remaining a child in perpetuity. Fortunately, the Arkansas Repertory Theatre’s production of “Peter and Starcatcher,” billed as the prequel to the story of the boy who refused to grow up, provides a bit more levity. I’m sure that fact that is was cowritten by one of the country’s preeminent humorists, Dave Berry, had something to do with that.
London, 1885: Queen Victoria commissions Lord Aster (Marc Carver) to deliver a chest of magic material known as “starstuff” to the island of Rundoon on a ship called the Wasp. Following him on a different ship are Aster’s precocious daughter Molly (Faith Sandberg) and her alliterative spewing nanny, Mrs. Bumbrake (Bruce Warren), on a ship called the Neverland. Things aren’t as they seem. For instance, Molly has no idea that her vessel actually contains the coveted magic dust. And the starstuff isn’t the only unanticipated cargo aboard. Three orphan boys are also in tow, one of whom, simply named Boy (Garret L. Whitehead), is bound to become the flying, frolicsome Peter Pan. In other areas of the high seas, the Wasp has been hijacked by Blackstache (Hugh Kennedy) and his crew, who make a beeline for the Neverland in pursuit of its riches. Molly and the boys must now protect the precious granules from the future Captain Hook and company.
“Resourceful” may be an understatement when describing the various creative ways in which the Rep uses props in this production. With a minimalist approach, blue sheets become oceans waves and ladders are arranged ever so slightly to become the bows of ships; actors with their backs turned to the audience become doors, while bannered flags become crocodile teeth. The costumes are what one would expect for late 19th century England, particularly when it comes to Peter and the boys, who resemble urchins straight out of a Dickens novel. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the mermaid outfits. They are colorful and glitzy, made of household items and worn by male actors in tight-fitting bikini tops and horribly positioned wigs.
Sure, a cross-dressing mermaid number in a play is funny, but with all the fourth-wall-breaking and constant, back and forth quips, the characters gives the impression of an improv show at times. And given that the production casts actors in multiple, disconnected roles, it feels like a variety show — particularly in a scene that finds Peter and Blackstache battling it out in a makeshift boxing ring that appears out of nowhere, with Molly serving as the ring girl. The silliness of it all was not lost on me. How could you not find 19th century references to Cadillac Escalades funny?
While the origin story of Peter’s arrested development is entertaining, Captain Hook’s backstory is far more appealing, though he does fall into the irritating trope of the effeminate heavy. Originally distinguished only by his ridiculous handlebar mustache, Blackstache loses his hand when he closes a chest door on it. The scene has him belting out an exhaustive “Oh my god!” in a range of cadences, a bit that is commendable mostly because of the actor’s impressive ability to jump an octave. In general, Blackstache is arrogant and far too prescient of the fact that a great rivalry between he and Peter lies ahead.
It’s disappointing that Peter doesn’t fly in the play, and not even the presence of an oversized flying cat can make up for that. With all its anachronistic references, (e.g. to Michael Jackson), slapstick humor, malapropisms and witty banter, “Peter and the Starcatcher” is a play all too aware of its role in laying the groundwork for well-known characters by imposing aspects of contemporary culture so that we might better understand them. But not to worry: The enduring power of its themes — fear of adulthood, longing to return to one’s youth — isn’t threatened by lines like, “And I bet your milkshake brings all the boys to the yard!”