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The Cell Theatre's flexible space provides a perfect setting for this dreamy take on J. M. Barrie's beloved children's story. logo
John Charles McLaughlin, Jessie Shelton, and Lachrisha C. Brown in Peter/Wendy.
(© Jeremy Bloom)
Peter/Wendy at The Cell Theatre is not the edgy -cool take on a familiar children's story that one might expect. The title might suggest a subversive gender-bending take on a children's classic, but it's more like an airy, live-action bedtime story. It's fun but unstimulating and absolutely never scary. The show's seven often double-cast actors are blank slates clad in stripey PJs who tell the story of Peter Pan using J. M. Barrie's original text from Peter Pan as well as his novel The Little White Bird. The play features all of the wonder and magic one expects from the tale of a boy who refuses to grow up, his adventures with a villainous pirate named Captain Hook, and a place called Neverland — but little action or character development to keep the audience engaged.

The Peter/Wendy experience begins as soon as each audience member steps foot in the black (actually bright white) box theater. The space's door opens onto the street, and in order to reach their seats, the audience must walk through the set where lost boys in their jammies quiz passersby for a "happy thought" to add to the hundreds already lining the walls. When the show starts in earnest, we meet several familiar characters: Mr. and Mrs. Darling (played by the charming Tim Eliot and Brittany Bellizeare) and their daughter Wendy (a suitably wide-eyed Jessie Shelton) and Peter himself (a man-boyish John Charles McLaughlin). Also wandering this world, we find A Lost Boy (Evan Kuzma) whose blindfolded meanderings and affected line delivery are the first hint that this play might be shooting for a level of deeper meaning that it's not quite achieving. In a sweet play about a little girl, a little boy, and fantasyland, it only undermines a charming aesthetic to give one character a shtick involving walking around blind and spouting enigmatic prose.

The story progresses much the same way you remember from childhood. Many moments are touching without being cloying, like when Wendy gives Peter a hair tie, telling him it's a kiss, and the sad, tender moments the Darlings share after their daughter's disappearance. For better and worse, however, the most memorable moments in this sleepy play happen when the characters step out of Barrie's familiar frame. Twice, the characters list "happy thoughts," reading at random from the comments written on the walls. At best, this can be lovely, with thoughts like "puppy breath" and "the smell of spring." At worst, awkwardly funny and a little stupid (remember, the characters listing these thoughts are bitty children): "drinking at work," "Madonna," "getting pregnant."

The night I visited, the best of these out-of-frame moments came courtesy of The Cell's unique space and director/adaptor Jeremy Bloom's use of it. I won't tell, because the surprise was half the fun, but contributing elements included the street-level door at the back of the set and a warm spring rain. Set designer Brian Rady and lighting designer Gertjan Houban each deserve a mention. Their work creates minimal but poignant effects that pull the play's dream-like quality together, while never taking attention away from the story.

When Peter first sets Wendy down in Neverland, he says to her, "Would you like to have your adventure now? Or would you like to have your tea first?" She responds, "Tea first." That's what Peter/Wendy feels like, a mug of tea so nice that they never quite get around to that adventure. Peter/Wendy is an innocent and gentle ride that provides a fulfilling experience without feeling the need to be provocative or dangerous. There's no need for the play to add excitement with audience participation and metaphor; it could instead raise the stakes just by playing up the story's own innate drama. Give Captain Hook a hook for god's sake!