The power of the actor’s art to illuminate an entire world is beautifully illustrated in Mabou Mines’ “Peter and Wendy,” in which actress Karen Kandel and the late author J.M. Barrie collaborate to spin a new variation on the beloved tale of Peter Pan, the boy who never grew up.
Taking Barrie’s 1911 novel — originally called “Peter and Wendy” — as its source, and not Barrie’s earlier and far more familiar play, adapter Liza Lorwin and director Lee Breuer ground their show in the simple art of storytelling. Dressed in Victorian whites, Kandel opens the show by opening a book, and it’s soon clear that one of the evening’s delights will be a new (or renewed) acquaintance with the surreal, wry and perhaps just a shade cynical wit that infused Barrie’s fairy tale. “Wendy knew that she must grow up,” says Kandel matter-of-factly. “You always know after you are two. Two is the beginning of the end.”
Julie Archer’s set is an abstraction of a nursery that looks as if a child might have assembled it, and it’s from the natural clutter found there — books and bedsheets and a tumble of toys — that the show springs to life.
Kandel narrates the tale using Barrie’s words, and gives voice to all the characters, while veiled, white-clad figures manipulate puppets representing the more fantastic members of the cast: a cherubic Peter Pan with a mop of messy hair; a sinister, bald Capt. Hook clad in black cape; the Darling children’s dog Nana, who doubles as the crocodile with nefarious designs on Hook. (Only the Lost Boys, plain wooden puppets that look a little too much like shoe trees, are disappointing, although their forlorn look is somehow appropriate.)
While the foolproof charms of Barrie’s fairy tale would probably captivate kids in almost any form, this production’s simplicity honors the power of children’s imaginations, for which Never-land is still the most magical metaphor. It invites kids to allow words — those pitifully discarded toys in this Nintendo-powered age — to animate the simplest of pictures. And in Kandel, Barrie’s words have an ideal interpreter: Using a treasure chest of accents and tones, she gives each charac-ter its own distinction: the comic, evil and snobbish mutterings of Hook, the arrogant spunk of Peter, Wendy taking delight at playing mother to the Lost Boys — all are deftly and precisely effected. Perhaps her greatest accomplishment is knowing how to guide the audience’s attention around the sometimes too obtrusive effects.
For while the show has a genuine coup de theatre or two — notably the bed linens rising to become a delightfully evoked pirate ship — some effects are more strained, as when a projection of tiny paper dolls floating on water is cumbersomely used to illustrate the kids’ flight around the nursery, or Kandel grabs a pair of scissors and cuts up paper to illustrate snow (it’s like craft time at nursery school). Barrie’s words and Kandel’s art easily upstage some of the less inspired stagecraft.
A mistake, too, is the substitution of a sing-along song for the traditional applause that brings Tinker Bell to life, making an awkward moment where a frisson of surefire theatrical excitement is expected. But except for this misstep, the music of Johnny Cunningham is a powerful enhancement, underscoring the show’s clear-eyed adherence to the more somber truths in Barrie’s tale that other productions tend to willfully ignore.
Although there’s a catchy tango for the crocodile, most of the Celtic-styled folk songs have a haunting, melancholy lilt that gives a voice to the sad subtext that only at the close peeks through the story’s whimsy. As Kandel describes with deep emotion Wendy’s transformation from girl to mother, we realize that the careless delights of Nev-erland, and of childhood itself, are evanescent things that recede all too soon. For everyone, that is, except Peter Pan.