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Will the Kids Pan Peter?

As the curtain rises on a new production of Peter Pan, Filichia wonders if the play can be enjoyed by today's youth. logo
So I get to the Berkshire Theatre Festival just seconds before Peter Pan is about to begin its Saturday evening performance, and I find plenty of empty seats in the house. What's fascinating is that there aren't rows upon rows of naked chairs but two empties dead center in row B, four in row C to the right, three more in row D to the left. That's the way it goes all through the Off-Broadway-sized house.

I make an educated guess: These seats are empty but not unsold. They were purchased long ago by subscribers who bought a season package because they wanted to see the theater's June production of Enter Laughing, its July mounting of Talley's Folly, and a new play in between. But many of these theatergoers don't have children or grandchildren and probably never intended to attend Peter Pan. Though I do spy some childless couples in the house, none look particularly eager to see the show, but there are a number of people sitting next to young children. And suddenly I wonder if those kids are going to have a good time.

For one thing, they'll be seeing Peter Pan without the lyrics of Betty Comden, Adolph Green, and Carolyn Leigh, and minus the music of Mark Charlap and Jule Styne. They won't quite be seeing J.M. Barrie's straight play, either, for the BTF is staging the version that John Caird and Trevor Nunn did in London in 1997. It has a Story Teller who doubles as Tinkerbelle. That's right -- Tinkerbelle won't just be a beam of light but will be portrayed by Bill Bowers, who'll wear a dress with wings on its back.

How are kids going to react to him and to the show as a whole? Lord knows, Peter Pan was a watershed event for my generation of baby-boomers, not only because the Mary Martin TV spectacular was one of the most-anticipated and most-watched shows of its era but also because of Disney's animated film version of the tale. Looking back on it now, I'm a little surprised we all responded to Martin's Peter Pan as much as we did because she was not as masculine a presence as the Disney character. When a video of the Martin version was first released in the '80s, Mike Clark of USA Today drolly called Martin's Peter "a candidate for many a playground beating."

But we were much more naive than today's kids. Interestingly, when Caird and Nunn did their London production, they cast a young man as Peter. I think that's all to the good. In 1994, Robert Johanson directed and portrayed Peter Pan in the Broadway musical version at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, NJ -- and that was all to the bad, for he played the part as if he were a little girl. Here in the Berkshires, Isadora Wolfe was playing Peter, and I wondered how the kids -- especially the boys -- would take to a hero who looked unmistakably female. (That Captain Hook ain't so masculine a presence, either. Some pirate!)

I worried further: How would young theatergoers take to the sight of actors attached to wires in order that they might fly? Back in the '50s, we found it awfully exciting because we knew there was no other option to get actors in the air. Kids today have seen it all through computer graphics and video enhancements, so would the wires strike them as frightfully hokey? Even those who've seen the Cathy Rigby Peter Pan on video didn't see the wires for they were eliminated thanks to some fancy computer work. No, those steel cords weren't going to suggest any sense of magic to these young sophisticates.

And how would the kids react to all that consternation about Peter's losing his shadow? Frankly, if the impossible happened and you lost your shadow, would you even notice? Or care? Would these young theatergoers discern that, for all the talk on this subject, there's Peter's shadow right there, stretching from his feet across the stage? Maybe kids sitting in the orchestra wouldn't catch it, but the Berkshire Theatre Festival has a balcony.

Yes, today's tykes are super-smart. My buddy Ron Fassler tells me that when the death of a prominent Broadway star was announced over the radio, his six-year-old son said mournfully, "I can't imagine a world without Stubby Kaye." So can you imagine a kid who's gone through a few nannies wondering how any parent could hire a dog for the job? Wouldn't their eyes narrow to suspicious and scornful slits when they hear such lines as "A baby's first laugh becomes a fairy" or "Nibs is more gay." I could hear them now, turning to their parents and asking, "Gay like Jack on Will and Grace?"

Will today’s kids demand a more masculine
Peter Pan, like Jeremy Sumpter in the new
film version of the J.M. Barrie classic?
Granted, it's a rare lad who wouldn't fantasize about running (or flying) away from home to a land where there are pirates and Indians. (They can't be called Native Americans in this case, can they?) But wouldn't youths of today wonder why, after all this need to get away from home, the boys -- and even the pirates -- decide that they do need a mother? Adults can understand what Barrie was getting at, but would kids, who at least like to fantasize that they could make out well enough on their own? (Interesting, too, how Peter soon becomes Wendy's "husband" and -- like so many spouses -- lets his wife get her way with the kids. Soon, he's doing everything but washing dishes and baby clothes.)

Anyway, I needn't have worried. The show starts and no kid complains to the person who took him that Nana looks like something out of a long-closed bus-and-truck company of Cats. They get a kick out of Bowers's Tinkerbelle when he exits with a Harvey Fierstein imperiousness, and while they mock him for wearing a dress, they do it good-naturedly. (A kid behind me excitedly mentions that Bowers in drag resembles the dumpy actor who's been playing the beleaguered and round-shouldered Tooth Fairy in those TV commercials.) And they seem to be having no problem accepting a young woman with lithe arms and legs as Peter.

Here comes the flying, which turns out to be clumsy on the too-small stage. What's more, the harnesses aren't well-hidden and the wires s-t-r-e-t-c-h the backs of the costumes, so Peter, Wendy, Michael, and John look like a quartet of Quasimodos in search of sanctuary. I turn to see the glares of disappointment on kids' faces -- and I see enchantment instead. They're accepting the limitations of live theater and looking past them.

As for Captain Hook: Even when he throws the audience a kiss, the kids smile and show no scorn at all. Suddenly I remember hearing that Johnny Depp wasn't butch in Pirates of the Caribbean, either. When Hook's nemesis -- an upright-standing crocodile -- sashays down the right aisle as a shady lady would, the kids giggle with glee. I'm starting to think that young people from every generation may respond to Peter Pan and enjoy their first brush with surrealism.

When the boys cry out, "Wendy, be our mother!" no kid turns to his parent and says, "Hey, I thought the whole point of getting away from London was to avoid having a mother, and here they are wanting one. What gives?" Even when the battle between Peter and the Pirates becomes a stylized and silly production number, they respond with hand-claps and don't question why Mr. Darling not only winds up in the doghouse figuratively but also literally.

In the famous scene where Peter asks the audience to applaud to save Tinkerbelle's life, the Story Teller motions to the audience that they must clap their hands lest his alter ego succumb. They do, but I get the impression they would have done it without any prompting from him. (By the way, in 1971 at the Loeb Experimental Theatre at Harvard University, I saw a student play called Robert in which a kid told his analyst that he had attended a production of Peter Pan and, after everyone had applauded to save the fairy, he growled out loud: "That's not good enough! Tinkerbelle's dead!" The author of Robert was a senior named Christopher Durang.)

I should mention that Walter Hudson's Captain Hook at BTF is terrific and that Isadora Wolfe's Peter is, too. (As Pseudolus says, "That's for those of you who have absolutely no interest in pirates.") At the curtain calls, both adults and children respond to Eric Hill's production even more than they had to Tinkerbelle's plight. From the enthusiastic sound they made at the performance I attended, I'd have thought it was a full house.


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]

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