The Alley Theatre is putting on a thrillingly buoyant production of J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan, or the Boy Who Would Not Grow Up. (Somewhere during all the countless revisions of this classic tale — most of them done by Barrie himself — the original 1904 title "The Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up" lost its rakish contraction.) While Peter may not fly through the Alley as imaginatively as he should — the aeronautics from ZFX, Inc. lack magic, and nobody seems troubled to camouflage the wiring — the spirited production still captures Barrie's sublime, dark, sad humor. This is cause for rejoicing.
No one writes like Barrie. What a strange, odd little man he was. Scalded at a young age by the death of his older brother and forever striving to get his mother's love, he remained in a state of arrested development. He adored children, to a fault, and if he were to appear today, his unabashed obsession with young boys — and a few girls, too — would raise countless red flags. He was, perhaps, the most autobiographical of authors, and his fathoms-deep desires are tracked throughout his writing like a seismograph. His marriage was a sexless sham, and shot through his novels and plays are such nakedly revealing passages as this: "...despite all he had gone through, he was still a boy. And boys cannot love...He gave her all his affection, but his passion, like an outlaw, had ever to hunt alone."
The Barrie outlaw hunted in London's Kensington Gardens; today we'd say "cruised." In 1897, already a famous author, he met the three Llewelyn Davies boys (George, Jack, and baby Peter) who played in the gardens. A few years later, two more sons, Michael and Nico, joined the adventurous group. Barrie mesmerized the children, enchanted their mother, and was tolerated by their father. When he wasn't writing, he was with "his boys," treating them and their mother to carefree holidays, photographing them at play as pirates or bathing nude, tucking them into bed, writing them love notes (to George, first, then later to his favorite, Michael) and telling them stories. Always telling them stories. The intense friendship inspired Barrie to undreamt-of heights of creativity. Peter Pan was the exuberant result.
This marvelous play contains all of Barrie's fixations: the wild boy who refuses to be tamed, intense motherly love, ineffectual fathers, dark whimsy, flights of fancy, filigreed language, no sex. The Alley's fine production, fetchingly directed by Gregory Boyd, is the 1982 Royal Shakespeare Company adaptation by John Caird and Trevor Nunn. It artfully combines the play's elaborate stage directions with descriptive passages from Peter and Wendy, Barrie's 1911 novelization of the play. This inventive approach creates a Storyteller (John Tyson) made up to look like Barrie (moustache, oversize greatcoat, beloved battered fishing hat), who draws us conspiratorially into the story with his quirky insights and wit. Unfortunately, RSC's version removes Tiger Lily, the Indians, and the mermaids. The spectacle is terribly tamed without them and suffers a loss of richness. But the wicked pirates are much in evidence (hurrah!), as is the odd assortment of "lost boys" with their cheeky, unwashed charm.
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The RSC's biggest change is having Peter played by a man, or a man playing an adolescent boy forever on the cusp of manhood. Jay Sullivan as Peter (last seen at the Alley as another lost boy — innocent, wounded George in Thornton Wilder's masterpiece Our Town) is such a punk wild child, with spiky hair and feathery garb, that he carries off the masquerade with conviction. He's the very picture of petulant Peter's wanton disregard of feeling and perpetual forgetfulness. With him as leader of the gang, we'd join up instantly.
Elizabeth Bunch makes a lovely Wendy, about to discover boys but still removed enough to be irritable and bossy when she doesn't get her way. For many of us who grew up on the evocative Disney version, Captain Hook is the cornerstone of any Pan, and Alley veteran James Black luxuriates in the outsize role, keeping the camp quotient mercifully tamped. Part Blackbeard, part Charles II, he looks marvelous in Constance Hoffman's rich costume of greasy dreadlocks, dainty lace cuffs, straight down to those sublime red heels on his boots.
The Jolly Roger's pirate crew is a deliciously motley sampler, from Todd Waite's cadaverous Starkey to Chris Hutchison's bandolier-wearing munitions expert Alf Mason; and the Lost Boys are delightfully pugnacious, with Dylan Godwin's adorably goofy Tootles a standout. So is Katrina Lenk (who doubles as the perfect Edwardian valentine of a mother, Mrs. Darling) as boastful, clueless Slightly. The character details throughout are wonderfully etched by all.
Except for the mundane flying and the inconsequential music score, the physical production is given the Alley's usual four-star gloss, with picture book settings by Hugh Landwehr and painterly lighting from Beverly Emmons.
In Peter Pan, Barrie created the rarest commodity of all — a myth. He's ageless and immortal. It's electrifying to meet him at the Alley when he was fresh and new, and just a beguiling character in a children's play. Who knew how high he would fly?
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