Thursday, May 10, 2012

Douglas Meserli | "Wasted on Youth" (on Rick Elice's Peter and the Starcatcher)

wasted on youth
by Douglas Messerli

Rick Elice (based on a fiction by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson) Peter and the Starcatcher / New York City,

On May 6, 2011 I attended Mabou Mine’s Peter and Wendy at New York City’s Victory Theatre, a delightful rendition of Barrie’s Peter Pan story performed by actors and puppets. Quite by accident—although I now believe such “accidents” are “intentional coincidences”—almost one year to the date I attended, last evening, Rick Elice’s amazingly theatrical prequel to Barrie’s tale, Peter and the Starcatcher. Although I’m reluctant to compare it with the far less entertaining Wicked’s relationship to The Wizard of Oz, it stands in a similar position to the original.

     Yet Peter and the Starcatcher, in many respects, is the polar opposite of Barrie’s belovèd sweet bedtime story etched into senior citizen’s memories through Disney’s cartoon transformation. Clearly today’s children—a number of whom were in attendance at the Saturday evening performance I witnessed—are quite obviously more sophisticated than I and my peers were growing up in the 1950s. For, although the 7 year-old boy and his 13 year-old sister, sitting on booster seats in the row in front of me, could obviously not have comprehended all of the witty linguistic confabulation of this play—much of it enveloped in camp humor and vaudeville-like risqué asides—they clearly understood and enjoyed a great deal of its multi-layered humor. That Peter and the Starcatcher is basically an adult comedy embracing all tried and true tricks of old-fashioned theatricality that still appeals to children and to the children-in-adults speaks volumes for the work’s intelligence and sheer audacity. If I cannot truly describe this play as a great or even significant dramatic work, I have no difficulty in suggesting that it is a brilliant pastiche—which given our time’s disinterest in normative coherency, is perhaps a greater compliment.

     This is a work, moreover, so different from most of Broadway’s current theater offerings in that it thoroughly depends on its ensemble cast, as the actors transform themselves from sailors into pirates, mermen, and a strange band of Mollusk Island natives whose leader has suffered indignities as a servant in the home of a wealthy English family.

     All of this play’s figures perform delightfully, as one by one they get their individual turns to strut their stuff; but the clear “star” of this zany concoction is the dyslexic, spoonerism-spouting, “nancy-boy” pirate, Black Stache (Christian Borle)—an earlier manifestation of Peter Pan’s crocodile hating, Captain Hook—who discovers in the “boy” (who later changes his name to Peter and finally is awarded his last name, Pan) his perfect nemesis, a kind of kindred yin to his yearning yang. Even more delicious, when Stache prances forward to put his tongue upon the plank, is Smee (Kevin Del Aguila), close behind, to correct those incomprehensible twists of tortured syntax.

     Almost as enticing is the crowd-pleasing frivolity of Molly’s sexually assertive nanny, Mrs. Brumbrake (Arnie Burton) and Fighting Prawn (Teddy Bergmann) who cling to one another, pushing and prodding from every possible position.

     In contrast to these figures’ shenanigans, Molly and the orphan boys, Peter, Alf, and the ever-starving Ted are not nearly so much fun—although they might be forgiven when we consider that by comparison with their orphan torments, Dickens’ Oliver Twist might be said to have lived a life of luxury. They are, moreover, doomed to live in eternal adolescence as outsiders, perpetual kidnappers of generations of temporary girl-moms. No wonder Peter, as he often announces, hates adults. Might he not simply be taken home to be petted and loved?

     Evidently not, particularly after he has bathed in the star-leaden waters that offer him whatever he might desire to become. And although he never really flies in this production he does occasionally soar with the rest of his friends. Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on your point of view, he remains an innocent, who like most innocents and far too many children are capable, competent, and serious-minded, while the adults around them all ridiculously blunder through their lives. One can only mutter at the end of this splendiferous caprice: “What a waste of youth!”

     As I stood to leave the young girl in front turned to announce, as if to confirm her own seriousness of intent: “I read the book”; while her equally sure-footed brother asserted: “I liked it, did you?”

 Aboard United jet 1688 returning from New York to Los Angeles, May 7, 2012

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