Peter and the Starcatcher is a fast paced, witty theatrical romp about Peter Pan's journey to becoming the high-flying champion of adolescence that we now know him to be. Based on the recently written novel of nearly the same name by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, the story is as whimsical as the original tale, with an additional dose of topical camp. The play begins on the Neverland, a ship bound from England to the island Rundoon. Lord Aster is on a mission for the Queen (God save her) to transport a trunk of starstuff, magical dust from the stars, to Rundoon to be destroyed. But several villains have their eye on the trunk as well, including ‘The Stache’ (the man who will one day be Hook), the most dreaded pirate in all the seas. Also onboard The Neverland are three mistreated orphan boys, and Molly, the precocious thirteen-year-old daughter of Lord Astor. Molly befriends the boys and, when her father is kidnapped and the starstuff endangered, enlists them on a mission to help her destroy the starstuff before it gets into the wrong hands. They all end up on a tropical island, inhabited by angry natives (the Mollusks) and a bloodthirsty crocodile.
Though the plot may sound silly, the pleasure of this tale comes from its telling. It is told by a talented and totally in-sync ensemble of twelve, who jump from character to narrator to piece of furniture at the snap of a finger. The play is presentational and text-heavy - normally ingredients for a trying 2 hours, but it's quite the opposite. It works because of the pace of the piece: actors race through the text, sometimes leaving the audience gasping to catch up, but even if one fails to grasp the meaning of a phrase or sentence, we remain entertained by its rhythm, cadence, and delightful delivery.
Rick Elise's script joyfully celebrates words, cramming alliteration, rhymes, and other bits of wordplay into nearly every line. Black Stache (a hilariously show stealing performance by Christian Borle) gets some of the best lines. One gem comes early on in the play, soon after we meet the brute: "But know this, Len – mine is a far, far heavier burden. For I am the end of my line. No heir apparent with no hair apparent; no bonafide heroes to hunt. And without them, what am i? Half a villain; a pirate in part; ruthless, but toothless – The Final Stache.”
The set is malleable yet detailed – an open space with walls that represent the innards of a ship in act one and a tropical island in act two. Lighting shifts help to transport us from scene to scene, and location to location, but the ensemble does just as much, if not more, on this count. As they rearrange themselves in different configurations, so the space is rearranged to become a school room, a tiny cabin, or a quiet hallway. With the help of props like rope or human-sized palm leaves, the ensemble transforms from pirates to doors to a dense forest to schoolchildren and back to pirates in mere moments, dashing from position to position to help tell the story. It is a triumph in ensemble work and some excellent, inventive direction by Roger Rees and Alex Timbers.
Though they may show off their word prowess and ensemble-work chops, these fellows are not afraid to make fun of themselves. In Act 2, Peter and the soon-to-be lost boys try to charm their way out of being killed by the Mollusks by telling a story, which they act out together, until Molly unveils herself and stops them, saying, “You abused the concept of the theater collective; it was too much for me.”
The cast of Peter and the Starcatcher is almost entirely male, with the exception of the exceptional Celia Keenan-Bolgier, who plays Molly. Both Bolgier and the character she plays hold their own among a sea of testosterone: Molly is a strong-willed, feisty girl, braver and smarter than the pitiful lost boys she bosses around. She's funny, too, but often overshadowed by the bombastic gags that center around ideas of maleness: men in drag, men with flamboyant, homosexual tendencies, etc. It seems to be a favorite topic, at least of Timbers, who inserted this kind of humor into Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson every chance he got. In a play that is so smart in so many ways, this humor has the feel of a boys' club blockbuster, which is disappointing.
Still, I came away from Peter and the Starcatcher quite entertained, and even moved, near its end. Elise, Timbers and Rees maintain the heart of the Peter Pan stories: the pains of growing up, the desire to remain young and innocent, to escape, to forget. Therein lies the beauty of all Peter Pan tales, and Peter and the Starcatcher certainly holds its own in celebrating the spirit of childhood and dramatizing its end. It's an excellent addition to the canon, and a hell of a joy ride.