Few theaters would seem a more natural match to create a new adaptation of “Peter Pan” than Chicago’s Lookingglass, given their specialization in physical theatricality and their experience with kid-oriented classics that also play to adults — “Lookingglass Alice” remains their signature show and has toured extensively. But while its first iteration of “Peter Pan” has a promising degree of minimalist elegance and plenty of theatrical ambition, this Neverland currently lacks a genuine sense of adventure.
Adaptor-helmer Amanda Dehnert has fashioned a show that’s all about make-believe. The company, dressed in either contemporary clothing or what we might call a fantasy aviator-chic (white costumes with the necessary, readily visible gear for theatrical flight), hang with the audience for a few minutes before the show proper starts with the dropping of a paperback copy of the J.M. Barrie book from the ceiling. The actors start reading, select roles, move a plastic curtain, bring on some mattresses and voila! We’re at the Darling home, a depiction of familial content.
Peter Pan arrives, in the form of red-headed Northwestern student Ryan Nunn, and soon Wendy (Kay Kron) and younger brothers John (Jamie Abelson) and Michael (Alex Weisman) are buckled up and airborne, with the heavy ropes un-hidden, making circles and experiencing wonder. It’s the most purely joyful moment of the show.
Dehnert finds all sorts of creative solutions for expressing the fantasy tale — the lost boys who live underground emerge from beneath the floor after a cascade of dirt from the ceiling makes that particular spot represent the earthy; Captain Hook (an exceptionally good Thomas J. Cox) moves about on a lot of scaffolding to signal a ship; lighting effects behind that plastic curtain provide assistance, etc. It’s a show that’s constantly moving.
But any show this highly choreographed in its staging can feel overly practical and even self-conscious. By the time we reach the climactic swordfight, it seems like the focus is far more on the movement of the scaffolding than on the central matter of life and death being depicted.
The narrative itself — the discovery of Neverland and the ultimate decision to return to a time-impacted life — feels fraught. The state of childhood expressed here feels more emotionally needy than imaginative or conflicted — the lost boys call Wendy “mother” a few too many times, and have too little fun. The performers, a genuinely talented lot mostly in their early 20s, depict kids with just a touch of children’s theater-type condescension, as if the target audience were 7-year-olds, who probably shouldn’t come to a show where Captain Hook lasciviously threatens to rape young Wendy.
There’s an awful lot of promise here, and a show this physically complex needs extensive time to perfect its movement before its emotional core can become genuine. That may well be the next step if this “Peter Pan” is to feel more fantastical, and to make the desire to stay a kid forever something appealing in the first place before it’s considered otherwise.