nytheatre.com review by Lucile Scott
October 23, 2008
Irondale Ensemble Project's adaptation of J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan, directed by Jim Nieson, takes the classic story of the flying, cocky young boy who refuses to grow up and lives a life of constant adventure fighting pirates in Neverland, and reconfigures it for an adult audience largely by introducing the character of Barrie, played by Damen Scranton with a captivating and heart-wrenching relish as he narrates his tale. The insertion of Barrie—and the minimalization of much of the action and joy of many more traditional renderings of the tale—highlights what is inherently dark and even somber in this story of a boy who dreads adulthood and responsibility, by bringing out Peter's conflicted feelings about mothers and his longing for love.
As Nieson points out in an essay explaining the adaptation, Barrie did not initially intend Peter Pan to be a children's story and he may have created the character as a kind of mirror for himself, a man who was denied much of his own childhood and the attention of his mother after his brother's death and remained something of a boy-man throughout life, perhaps never consummating his marriage. The story of Peter Pan had many incarnations including a few novels, which presumably were the source of much of Barrie's dialogue in this play, spouted as he pauses the action and inserts asides about the lust for eternal childhood and mothers and overbearing fathers and bemoaning what comes with adulthood, which in Victorian England was presumably much more constricting than what comes today.
The production takes place in Irondale's new Brooklyn theater, which is still under construction. The set uses scaffolding, which melds well with the overall in-progress feel, as a vehicle for flying and fighting. Throughout the show, black and white Victorian equivalents of what is going on on stage are projected on the wall, as a slightly eerie and sometimes beautiful effect, suggesting what Barrie saw and how he translated the real world into the play with his imagination, as imagination is of course the driving power in Neverland.
The all-adult ensemble cast—with the exception of the actors playing Peter and Wendy— snap between playing children, pirates, redskins, parents, fairies, and dogs, sometimes amusingly fighting with themselves. They beat out tight fight sequence rhythms and sing lovely tunes. Michael-David Gordon plays both Hook and Mr. Darling—a double casting meant to suggest Barrie's opinion of the callous father figure—with a ridiculous confidence tinged with a shatteringly funny and touching self-doubt. Mr. Darling is of course father to John, Michael, and Wendy—the latter is played by Scarlet Rivera with a sweet and spunky sass—who Peter brings to Neverland in the hopes that Wendy can play mother to him and his band of Lost Boys.
The play relies heavily on the thrill of adventure and an investment in its outcome, and the detachment provided by Barrie's presence, the multiple casting, and the minimalist effects sometimes cause the two-and-a-half-hour play to drag. But you do effectively feel the dread of impending adulthood. By the end, all but Peter have left behind Neverland and accepted the inevitabilities of time, including even Peter's faithful followers, the Lost Boys, who leave their paradise in search of their real mothers. At the end Barrie describes the adult version of each with sadness and pity. For instance, "The bearded man who doesn't know any story to tell his children was once John."
Barrie also tells us that Peter had gone home once, long before the action of the play, and seen a new baby in his bed and bars on his windows and thought that he was not wanted. He turned away, never to return and stays where all is adventures and carefree and fun and devoid of the love and connections that Barrie and he so obviously crave in a melancholic and poignant either/or juxtaposition—the effect intensified because of course Peter Pan and Neverland could never be. Everyone grows up eventually; the question, it seems, is whether or not you forget you were ever a child.