Peter Pan

Chicago Shakespeare Theater

Peter Pan

Emerald City Theatre Company

at the Apollo Theater

“I don’t know whether you have ever seen a map of…a child’s mind, which is not only confused, but keeps going round all the time,” writes James M. Barrie in the first chapter of his 1911 novel Peter and Wendy. “There are zigzag lines on it…and it is all rather confusing, especially as nothing will stand still.”

Barrie’s odd little metaphor establishes the theme of the Peter Pan story: the perplexing tumult of a child’s feelings, the terror and ecstasy and loving generosity and petulant vanity of those who are “gay and innocent and heartless,” as Barrie put it. Peter Pan, like all great fairy tales, was born of a grown-up’s need to entertain children: it grew out of Barrie’s relationship with George, Jack, and Peter Llewellyn Davies, three young brothers with whom Barrie played games involving pirates and Indians and fairies. Barrie was a whimsical wit with a wounded soul, his development arrested at the age of six by his mother’s grief over the sudden death of his 14-year-old brother. Controversy surrounds the question of Barrie’s possibly pedophiliac fixation on the Llewellyn Davies boys, but there’s no question that his obsession with eternal youth and untimely death produced one of the modern era’s true classics, the story of the “wonderful boy” who “would not grow up.”

Peter Pan’s first public incarnation was as a play in 1904. Barrie tinkered with the material over the years (he even penned the scenario for a proposed 1920 film starring Charlie Chaplin), and since his death in 1937 many others have had their way with the story. Most baby boomers grew up with the 1954 musical version that starred Mary Martin under Jerome Robbins’s direction, first shown on Broadway and then taped for TV; a touring revival of that show played here in 1998, starring Cathy Rigby as the most exciting, boyish Pan I’ve seen. A 1982 version by the Royal Shakespeare Company incorporated elements from various Barrie texts, as did Chicago director Dale Calandra’s 1993 rendition for Center Theater. The House Theatre of Chicago’s Terrible Tragedy of Peter Pan–a 2002 hit at the Viaduct–emphasized the story’s psychosexual underpinnings. Cinematic incarnations include the 1953 Disney cartoon, Steven Spielberg’s overlong but provocative 1991 Hook, and last year’s “motion picture event,” with its spectacular flying effects. (A Barrie biopic starring Johnny Depp is due out this fall.)

Now, marking the play’s 100th anniversary, two local troupes are offering new adaptations. The authors of these one-acts have cut up and reassembled the story, dispensing with some elements and emphasizing others. In both versions Peter is played by a young man rather than a woman, which is closer to Barrie’s original intent. Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s musical–written, composed, and staged by relentlessly busy local director-choreographer Marc Robin–is performed by a union cast and band and boasts some pretty impressive theatrics. The Emerald City Theatre Company’s leaner non-Equity production, scripted by Alyn Cardarelli, lacks Chicago Shakespeare’s budget and technical resources. But its twists on Barrie’s original take the story in interesting directions, even if they’re not always developed well.

Cardarelli’s version focuses on Wendy’s maturation. Here she’s an only child who’s approaching adolescence but insists on sleeping in the nursery. Her father’s exhortations to grow up precipitate a visit from Peter Pan, spirit of eternal youth: he whisks her off to Neverland, where Peter’s affection for her rouses the jealousy of his fairy sidekick, Tinkerbell, a Rollerblading mute whose sign language is accompanied by the jingle of bells on her wrists. Becoming a surrogate mother to Peter’s Lost Boys, Wendy tells them lots of stories, mostly about Peter. Peter’s archenemy, the buccaneer Captain Hook, kidnaps Wendy and the boys and tries to poison Peter; Tinkerbell drinks the poison to save him, but Peter brings her back to life with the aid of the audience’s applause, then vanquishes the dastardly Hook.

Joining Peter in his battles against Hook is the Indian princess Tiger Lily, portrayed by Whitney Hayes as a fierce warrior and martial-arts master. This Tiger Lily is reluctantly drawn into the ongoing conflict between the armies of Peter and Hook–two groups of white Europeans who’ve invaded her island. In other variations on the original, the audience here is not asked to believe in fairies, just to clap; and Hook, played by Derek Czaplewski, is a whiny weenie whose childishness is the show’s main source of laughs. He has several attachments for his stump besides his hook, including a cake-frosting spoon and a teddy bear. But without a threatening villain there’s little sense of danger, so any victory Peter achieves seems beside the point.

The Emerald City production is energetic, good-natured, and noisy but a little amateurish, more playtime than theater. Under Kevin Bellie’s direction, the cast–especially the Lost Boys and the pirates–fall prey to the worst sort of kiddie-show mugging. Watching adults act like really stupid kids can be funny for about a minute, then it grows tedious. (So do Cardarelli’s lame puns about Wrigley Field and the song “MacArthur Park,” which went right over the kids’ heads.) Significantly, the children in the audience seemed truly engaged only once, when they anxiously shouted warnings to Peter and the Lost Boys not to eat the poisoned cake.

The Chicago Shakespeare show is less boisterous but more slyly funny. The cast avoids heavy-handed hamming and the pirates are played with particular finesse. Timothy Gregory as Hook is a wonderful Restoration fop, always poised on the edge of camp but never going too far, and the vaudevillian timing he establishes with Don Forston and Curt Dale Clarke as Smee and Starkey is hilarious. Tinkerbell, played by ballerina Christine Bunuan, is a chatty charmer who harbors no ill will toward Wendy. Both Wendy and Tiger Lily are pretty conventional embodiments of girls as helpmates; the only time they show real spunk is in a Britney Spears-like hip-hop duet extolling Peter’s heroism. (It’s 2004–why can’t Wendy pick up a sword and help Peter fight off the pirates?)

The principal failure of both productions is the protagonist. Chicago Shakespeare’s exuberant Peter, played by actor-gymnast Matt Raftery, flies over the viewers’ heads–something Emerald City’s rather bland hero (Jeff Kongs) doesn’t begin to attempt. But neither suggests anything other than cocksure confidence, robbing Peter Pan of the qualities that have made him endure for a century. In these shows Peter is brave and charming but little more–a cartoon cipher who can fight and fly but doesn’t feel. Barrie’s Peter is much messier and more complex: peevish, obstinate, sometimes cruel. In short, a child.

Young audiences are capable of embracing a vulnerable, flawed superhero–look at Spider-Man and Harry Potter. Indeed, Peter Pan without flaws can have no significant triumphs. Except for the poison-cake episode in Emerald City’s production, neither of these shows stirs any suspense. Tinkerbell’s death and revival is a routine ritual; Hook’s nemesis, the crocodile with the ticking clock in its gut, is just a device to bring scenes to an end; and Peter’s most famous line–“To die will be an awfully big adventure”–has been cut. Softening Peter’s turbulent personality and omitting the story’s scariest elements makes these adaptations little more than efficient but empty diversions.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Liz Lauren.