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Jack Lush and Rezeile Caravaca
in Peter Pan
(Photo: Gerry Goodstein)
The Irondale Ensemble Project's new adaptation of J.M. Barrie's beloved classic Peter Pan is described as a "dark reinterpretation" but it is not nearly as frightening as one might expect. True, it's a far cry from Cathy Rigby in green tights flying about the stage, but still far less eerie than some of those noirish Batman cartoons that kids watch on weekday afternoons. This is a blessing: "Dark reinterpretations" of classics usually end up containing obligatory (and usually unnecessary) high doses of sex, drugs, and violence to inject a bit of "realism" into the proceedings, but what Irondale does here is much more honest. The company gets at the uncomfortable center of Barrie's Peter Pan which, it turns out, is not only about the gaiety of youth but also concerns the heartlessness of it.

The story runs, for the most part, as we know it. Peter Pan turns up at Wendy's window, teaches her and her brothers Michael and John to fly, then whisks them off to Never Land. There they meet the Lost Boys, battle Captain Hook, and eventually return home, only to grow old and stop believing. The whimsy is still present in the Irondale production but with the sort of unsettling subtext that previous stage, film, and television versions did not reveal. There is violence (how could there not be with pirates running around?), and Peter Pan's lightheartedness, usually portrayed as charming, becomes irritating. With the ebullience of youth comes a frustrating self-centeredness. In this context, the relationship between Peter and Wendy is fascinating: She wants to be "something more" to him but all he wants is a playmate and a mother. Meanwhile, Tinkerbell, like a jealous lover, tries to deceive the Lost Boys into killing Wendy. So this show is a little dark, I guess.

The look and sound of the production are perfect for this alternative view of Peter Pan. A large screen at the back of the stage projects picture book photos, and original music composed by Walter Thompson is performed by his small orchestra off to the side; this, along with narration and participation by an actor playing J.M. Barrie, gives the show a dreamy quality that befits the story. The resourceful scenic designer, Ken Rothchild, was not at all hindered by the lack of fly space--instead, he designed a kind of pseudo-gymnasium from monkey bars and boards that act as vehicles for "flight". And costume designer Sarah Adams captures Barrie's Edwardian world with a skewed perspective; for example, she has dressed the Lost Boys in tattered private school uniforms.

Happily, Peter Pan is played by a man (Jack Lush) in this production, and he wears a uniform much more flattering than the traditional green tights; Lush perfectly portrays the energy and excitement of youth that is at once attractive and repulsive. Rezeile Caravaca is a lovely Wendy, innocent enough to believe in Never Land yet wise enough to play mother to Peter and all the Lost Boys. The enthusiastic ensemble does triple duty, playing Darlings, Lost Boys, and pirates. Some are more adept at the quick changes than others, and their ability to land Barrie's witty (and strange) dialogue also varies. Unfortunately, the humor and charm of the show is occasionally at odds with the weighty production values, and only the most outstanding member of the cast manage to transcend that situation.

This meditation on loss of youth and on the pain that youth's carelessness causes is engaging, but Irondale does itself a disservice by attenuating the story and consequently draining some of its liveliness. The ending feels especially prolonged and the tone of the production is not always consistent. For example, Peter's begging of applause to heal Tinkerbell--a staple in productions aimed at young people--doesn't fit the mood of the rest of the show. Still, there is a lot of good in this Peter Pan, which feels closer than previous versions to the story that J.M. Barrie was trying to tell.

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