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Karen Kendal shares the stage
with Captain Hook and Peter Pan
in Peter and Wendy
(Photo: Richard Termine)
Mabou Mines, one of the nation's premiere avant-garde theater groups, works its magic on J.M. Barrie's classic Peter Pan in a reprisal of its acclaimed Peter and Wendy, now playing at the New Victory Theater. It is a ferociously creative take on the well-known story of the boy who refuses to grow up and who brings the little Darling children to his home in Neverland. Like the "darker" version of the tale recently presented at Theater for the New City, this one sticks close to the book, eschewing the twinkly lightheartedness of the Disney animated film. But here it is presented the way only Mabou Mines could, with puppets, shadows, music, and lots of theatrical ingenuity.

The multi-talented Karen Kendal single-handedly carries the narrative force of the show. As the Narrator, she not only acts the parts of Mr. and Mrs. Darling and Wendy but also voices all of the show's puppets, from the feisty Scottish brogue of young Peter Pan to the dangerous whispers of Captain Hook. Around Kendal swirl several white-clad actor-puppeteers with covered faces. Though they glide and tumble about, one's eye is always drawn to the puppets they carry, which range from sophisticated (the entrancing Neverbird) to joyfully simple (the ragged clump of cloth that is Nana, the Darlings' dog).

Almost every minute of the show has something to capture the eye, the mind, or the imagination, whether it is simply the showcasing of Barrie's incisive wit or the image of a crocodile doing the tango. There are small moments of graceful beauty (like Hook's death scene) and grand moments of ecstasy (most notably when the children take flight).

Music also plays a large role in the show. The accompanying band--perched on the balcony overlooking the stage--plays Celtic airs and raucous reels, and several scenes are augmented by beautiful solos sung by Lisa Moscatiello. These original songs, with music and lyrics by Johnny Cunningham (and additional lyrics by director Lee Breuer, adapter Liza Lorwin, and Barrie himself), usually comment on the action; they are often clever and almost always have a faintly dirge-like quality. This music mourns the loss of childhood--which is what Peter Pan, for all its fanciful fairies and pirates, is really about.

Mabou Mines doesn't let us forget it, either. Perhaps the company members felt that Barrie's ending, which slowly shows Wendy growing too old to fly and her daughter Jane going through the same experiences as she, was too temptingly beautiful and bittersweet to be truncated. The cleverness and seductiveness of Barrie's prose, which shines in his lengthy description of life at the Darling household, also finds its way into Peter and Wendy--along with the famous flight to Neverland, the Lost Boys, and the battles with Hook. All of this together makes for a rather cumbersome evening (clocking in at about two and a half hours), especially for a show that is aimed at children.

Not that Peter Pan doesn't deserve such a faithful rendering. Mabou Mines capably captures the spirit of the story, imbuing it with its own mark of originality along the way. Still, a bit of trimming could give Peter and Wendy the wings it needs to really soar.

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