The Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up, For Grown-Ups

Few twentieth century stories have enjoyed as many successful adaptations, in such a variety of media, as J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. Best known today in the forms of Barrie’s novel, Disney’s movie, and the Mary Martin musical, in 1904 Barrie’s story of the boy who wouldn’t grow up premiered, in its first fully realized form, as an adult stage play. As adapted by Brooklyn’s Irondale Ensemble, that play is a joy to watch. Peter Pan serves as the inaugural production of the company’s new home, The Irondale Center, a former Fort Greene church. The Center officially opened its doors earlier this month; eventual plans for the space include an art gallery, a café, office and conference rooms. How fortunate for the community to gain such a dynamic arts center; how fortunate for Peter Pan that those projects are still in the works. As it stands now, the former sanctuary possesses an intersection of dusty stateliness and ethereal magic. Tension between those two poles forms the crux of the Peter Pan story, and their physical representation in the performance space is terrific.

Ken Rothchild’s scenic design utilizes the raw space to great effect, creating levels, so important to the suggestion of flight, with metal scaffolding and the church’s own balcony. Scaling stories-high scaffolding and bounding in from the rafters, the cast displays buoyant energy. As Peter Pan, Jack Lush posses an athleticism that is at once wild and determined. He captures the character’s childlike belief in a singular right and wrong, while hinting at the inner complexity of the boy who wouldn’t grow up.

Despite Peter’s insistence of his desire to avoid the world of rules, he himself possesses a profound sense of justice. Though Peter famously loves adventure and mischeviousness, Barrie suggests that the boy’s inability to expect dishonesty, ever, is perhaps what separates Peter from all other children. Audiences are informed so by Barrie himself; the production is adapted to include Barrie’s stage directions and authorial voice.

The audience doesn’t need a narrator to understand the story; Jim Neison’s directorial skill conveys Barrie’s intentions without actually putting his stage directions into the dialogue. Yet inserting Barrie as a character, surrounded by his characters, is nonetheless a dynamic choice. Barrie’s onstage characterization acknowledges the source of the Peter Pan mythology while indicating the ways that Barrie himself now figures in to the myth.

Neither the perverse recluse of literati folklore nor a starry eyed cook in the vein of Johnny Depp, Damen Scranton’s Barrie is a refined storyteller. He at once controls the world around him, placing props in characters hands and instructing the audience as to their motivations, while at the same time conveying a curious sense of powerlessness. Although the characters are his brainchildren, he appears to see their fates as inexorable. His frustration with his characters, more than his love for them, makes his presence welcome.

A small, boisterous ensemble playing a wide variety of roles enhances the notion that these characters are fictional constructs. Under Neison’s seamless direction, the talented cast shifts roles not just from scene to scene but from moment to moment. Although the shifts are occasionally confusing, quick character changes help keep up the pace of the over two-hour production. Liz Prince’s costume design keeps the aesthetic simple and eases the transitions; whites and beiges make up the world of the play. Peter Pan stands out in his signature green.

Peter and Wendy are the only characters whose actors don’t play multiple roles, a choice that highlights the fact that both characters are protagonists (significantly, the first novelized version of the story was titled Peter and Wendy). In the Irondale production, Scarlet Rivera’s Wendy is neither as saccharine as the animated and musical versions with which audiences are familiar, nor as worldly. Rivera and Lush make a great match for one another, successfully portraying children who play-act romance without overtly sexualizing them. Equal parts dutiful and petulant, the evolution of their relationship – her anticipation of womanhood and his dread of it – create subtle rifts in their otherwise happy home. Watching the alignment of their games come undone is startlingly sad to watch, even when, from the outset, audiences know their separate trajectories.

In one of the play’s creepier moments, after Wendy sends the lost boys to bed, childlike Peter checks with her to make sure they are only pretend husband and wife. She answers that it’s pretend so long as he wants it be. A more ironic production would turn the moment into meta-theater; here it creates a sense of palpable unease.

Though we often think of Peter Pan as an adventure tale, it is as much a story of homemaking as of pirates. Wendy, after all, goes to Never Land because Peter wants someone to take care of the boys and keep house. As such, it's a fitting inaugural production for a company that has at last found its home.

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