Peter Pan Soars at the Alley

If perhaps I'm slightly out of sorts, it might be because I can't quite manage to stay in my desk chair. I seem to be somewhat hovering above it, or around it, but not quite in it. It's the queerest sort of floating.

There's a strange dust wafting over me, too. A sparkly fine mist, but yet it doesn't make me sneeze. It buoys me up. Could it be? No, of course not, that's insane. What a thought.

Whoa, but there I go again. I'm two inches, at least, off the chair. I grab the armrests and pull myself back down to the desk. I brush myself off and settle in.

OK, I admit, I'm back from the Alley Theater where J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan or The Boy Who Would Not Grow Up just had its Houston premiere. It leaves one airborne. While it may not be the most magical of productions -- the flying is pretty ordinary and no one goes to any great lengths to hide the wiring -- the play itself is stuffed with magic and wonder. If there's any kid left in you, and I sincerely hope there is, then you should fly over and experience Barrie's perverse kind of merriment.

The original opened in London in 1904 as a kind of pantomime during the Christmas season. A "panto" (many are still performed at Christmas in England) is that peculiar form of kiddie entertainment that's a goofy vaudeville revue without the sexy smirk -- lots of scenery, special effects, songs and dances, men in drag, and women as boys. Fairy tales are a big hit. (Stages Rep has started a panto tradition every holiday. This year's is Pinocchio.) Barrie gave the world a panto without parallel, something that reached so far into his own psyche even he didn't know exactly what he had wrought. He gave the world a myth, dark and a little creepy to say the least, but a story that's as immortal as his lost little boy hero who refuses to grow up.

All his work deals in some way with men who aren't grownups, or with the dead coming back to seek their sons or to see what the world's like without them, and not being very happy about what they ultimate find. Yet his novels, plays, stories -- and very life -- are etched with an autumnal whimsy and overarching sadness that only Barrie could have created. Out of his hard-scrabble early life, he found immense fame and fortune (Peter Pan earned him countless thousands of pounds every year), but he had a horribly distorted marriage. He never, or wouldn't, or couldn't consummate his marriage, and perpetually lived as a boy with stoic, suffering wife Mary -- until she couldn't stand it any longer and found herself a lover, divorcing Barrie in a most un-Edwardian manner and airing his peculiarities in court, no less.

Yet he worked like a dog all the time, writing, jotting down notes obsessively for the next project, turning his own hidden life into prose ... when he wasn't playing--cricket, games of all sorts, practical jokes, or photographing and scrambling about with his favorite fab three (soon to be five), the Llewelyn-Davies boys.

Today, if Barrie lived down the street from the Llewelyn-Davies family and he took such an obsessive interest in the kids--roughhousing, disappearing with them for hours at a time, taking them on vacations to lonely islands in Scotland, tucking them into bed at night, and writing about how much they and their dreams and their secrets meant to him--he'd probably be put on a watch list, at the very least. But at the turn of the century, even though eyebrows were raised, nobody said a word to counter the great and famous James Matthew Barrie, sad little Uncle Jim.

What he created out of his adventures with the boys would eventually become his one great story, from which eventually came three books (The Little White Bird, Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, Peter Pan and Wendy) and the play which had numerous revisions through the years, until it flew quite out of his hands and became immortal.

The Alley production is the Royal Shakespeare Company's 1982 revision which cleverly weaves into the play many of Barrie's eloquently written stage directions, spoken by The Storyteller (John Tyson). He's made up to look like Barrie: large moustache, wearing an oversized greatcoat in the beginning, or his beloved, battered fishing cap as he sits in the haunted Neverland forest. Near the end, he flies too, which loses a lot of its dramatic surprise since his flying rig is so clearly visible as soon as he walks on. We can pretend only so much.

But it's the play that's the thing, and Barrie weaves childhood trauma, dream imagery, and frolic into what might be said is the most satisfying and frightening picture of childhood. We can only remember that world, which makes us happy and sad, but to remain there forever would probably be the death of us.

Why am I floating again?

(Through October 31, Alley Theatre, 615 Texas. 713-228-8421.)

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