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Out of the Flying Pan

by Christopher Arnott | Dec 19, 2013 2:36 pm

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Posted to: Arts & Culture, Theater

CHRISTOPHER ASH PHOTO You may think you know Peter Pan. He’s a flying boy, usually played onstage by a grown woman, who takes a girl named Wendy to an enchanted land where there are pirates and alligators and no mothers. But it’s no pie-in-the-sky lark. This is a harrowing tale of abandoned kids and the hazards they endure on a daily basis. It’s a story of survival and eternal hopefulness.

It’s easy to forget how many people, how many whole groups of people, there are in this simple story about the need for family. Wendy has two siblings. Peter has a whole gang of friends. There’s a Native American tribe and a full envoy of pirates.

It’s a large, thriving community. The magic of the Yale School of Drama thesis production of Peter Pan, which ends Thursday night at the Yale University Theater, is the community it has built so this oft-told tales of second-stars-to-the-right shines in a whole new way.

It creates a community of Yale School of Drama classmates, working together without ego or upstaging. They in turn create a community of adorably unsteady and energetic children enduring untold hardships in Edwardian London.

CHRISTOPHER ASH PHOTO One of the many clever things about director/adaptor Dustin Wills’s uncompromising new take on J.M. Barrie’s classic (first staged in 1904) is how he lets such a large cast, such a grand vision, spring up naturally, while also underscoring one of the main themes of the play. The theme is motherlessness. Wills sets his production in an orphanage, where the orphans are staging their own imaginative version of Peter Pan in hopes of endearing themselves to prospective parents.

In Wills’ version, Peter and his Neverland pals are truly Lost Boys, played by young man acting childlike. Peter is played by the athletic Mickey Theis, who has a matinee-hero physique joined with a James Dean sultriness. Theis, well known to denizens of the Yale Cabaret (where he starred in Sam Shepard’s Cowboy Mouth, among other shows) and the 2013 Yale Summer Cabaret (where, among other roles, he was the drunk artist in Tennessee Williams’ In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel), is an all-round performer. He can act and sing and play guitar and do flips and win swordfights.

But it’s not taking anything away from Theis to say that this production of Peter Pan is a rare thing: an ensemble tour-de-force. All the actors are walking a very fine line between naturalistic acting and all-out escapism. They are, after all, playing children who want to escape from their current situations. Inside, they’re lonely and starving. Outside, it’s World War One.

CHRISTOPHER ASH PHOTO There are many areas where the Peter Pan story completely takes over, with wild chases and kidnapings and speeches about the importance of strong, responsible authority figures. Then there are times when a different sort of pandemonium breaks in, where the child performers forget themselves, break character, and fight. Or express alarm when a gun that they’d thought was a harmless prop goes off and takes a chunk of plaster out of the ceiling. Or break into a cacophony of pleas for a loving family such as they’ve never known.

The cast works hard to be unexceptional. They nail the idea that what they are really playing are children who are performing a play while their minds are elsewhere. In that sense, this production resembles one of the greatest of all modern ensemble plays, Peter Weiss’ Marat/Sade. There’s that same wonderful sense of distraction, of layered emotions, of direct and up-front social allegory. You’re seeing where the story comes from as it’s being told.

In its youthful exuberance and bare-bones set, not to mention its bleak house Dickensian setting, this Peter Pan also evokes another storied ensemble stage show, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 1980 reworking of Nicholas Nickleby. There’s a similar inventiveness and intensity. Running for over two hours without any intermission, Peter Pan immerses you in its environment and doesn’t let you go until its downbeat air-clearing of an ending.

CHRISTOPHER ASH PHOTO Wills has taken a clever route here. He’s researched the original manuscripts of Peter Pan among the J.M. Barrie archives at Yale’s Beinecke Library, and found variations that confirm his own vision of the play as a deep, sensitive story of vulnerable children in an uncertain, changing world. He doesn’t sentimentalize, as does The Man Who Was Peter Pan, Allan Knee’s well-known drama which explains Peter Pan through the do-gooding nature of J.M. Barrie himself. (Knee’s play became the even more cloying Johnny Depp picture Finding Neverland.)

The actors—seriously, one of the strongest overall classes of YSD actors in recent years—have plenty to work with. They’re telling a real story, full of adventure, while playing characters with honest historical grounding. The stage (scenic design by Mariana Sanchez Hernandez) really looks like a rundown orphanage. When a window opens, you feel the chill.

Wills willfully ignores Peter Pan’s legacy as a fly-happy family-friendly frolic. In England at this time of year, Peter Pan is one of the most popular of the annual wintertime “panto” plays, clownish entertainments played to whooping audiences who shout “Look behind you!” at the stage. At Yale, Peter Pan is a fable about growing up in desperation at a time of widespread depression. It’s a valid interpretation, strong enough to wipe memories of Mary Martin or Cathy Rigby clean out of your head.

CHRISTOPHER ASH PHOTO Wills’ approach shares a tone with the award-winning Mabou Mines show Peter & Wendy, which played the Yale Rep in 1998 and which the company still revives every few years. Both shows use sparse bedroom settings and created the fantasy through long bouts of lyrical storytelling, down-to-earth special effects where you can see the wires (and don’t mind), and lilting acoustic British folk music. It’s obviously an effective method of conveying the work of an author who is often unfairly branded as lightweight. Barrie’s most important works—including Dear Brutus (beautifully staged at Westport Country Playhouse in 2005) and The Admirable Crichton—are about how class and breeding don’t account for much, and how important it is to develop good survival instincts.

Dustin Wills’ Peter Pan reminds us that Barrie lived and wrote during the First World War (even making the conflict the subject of several of his plays and novels). He doesn’t lay on any issues that Barrie hasn’t touched on. It’s brave to take a show known for prancing short-haired women in green tights and show all the unshiny horrors Peter Pan is flying away from.

This Peter Pan is earthbound, played in streetclothes on a set of rusty beds. Yet it soars.

CHRISTOPHER ASH PHOTO Peter Pan has its final performance tonight, Dec. 19, at 8 p.m. in the Yale University Theater, 222 York St. More info is at (203) 432-1234 or here.
CHRISTOPHER ASH PHOTO

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