J.M. Barrie’s children’s classic, “Peter Pan,” gets a feminist overhaul in the Shakespeare Theatre’s current production, “Peter Pan and Wendy,” onstage at the Sidney Harman Hall through Jan. 12.
Reimagined by playwright Lauren Gunderson, this world premiere will charm both children and adults with its emphasis on females who are smart, no-nonsense, strong and fearless. Still intact are swashbuckling pirates, fairies and Peter Pan, the mischievous boy who refuses to grow up. Also intact is the overall theme of young people taking on an older, corrupt evil in the form of the villainous pirate, Captain Hook.
However, this awe-filled production, with dazzling special effects, will cast a spell on a new generation who will see the play’s female characters from a more balanced perspective. An added plus is Gunderson’s bold inclusion of issues such as patriarchy and colonialism, with this production’s Tiger Lily presented as a conscious-raising indigenous activist.
Ably directed by Alan Paul, this show builds on the delightful tale that Barrie spun in 1904 about a London family that is visited by a boy named Peter Pan who can fly with the greatest of ease and lives with a host of lost boys in a dream world called Neverland.
From the impressive opening scene, with its special effects by Jeremy Chernick, the audience immediately grasps the talent of the team that has put together this spectacular show. Scenic designer Jason Sherwood’s set with a Victorian bedroom with high ceiling windows covered with sheer white curtains is absolutely lovely. There we meet Wendy Darling (a delightfully tenacious Sinclair Daniel) peering through a telescope checking out a never before seen star. That star, we find later, is the fairy Tinkerbell who soon will get trapped in an armoire in Wendy’s room.
Wendy desires to become an astronomer, inspired by Nobel Prize winner Marie Curie. However, her mother, Mrs. Darling (played by Jenni Barber, who does comic double duty as a jealous and spiteful Tinkerbell), has plans for Wendy to attend finishing school.
Wendy’s father (Derek Smith, who doubles as the evil Captain Hook) agrees with the idea as well. When the parents leave to attend a party, tucking Wendy and her two brothers, Michael (Chauncey Chestnut) and John (Christopher Flaim), in bed for the night, they leave the canine nanny, Nana, (real live dog actor, Bailey) in charge. From this point, the real magic begins as the audience is taken on an action-filled journey.
In “Peter Pan and Wendy,” it is the flying scenes that are the most thrilling, and ZFX Inc. does a terrific job of having Peter Pan (a talented Justin Mark) soar through the sky, aided by Paul Rubin’s flying choreography.
As the children sleep, Peter Pan flies into the room, looking for his shadow, which has somehow managed to escape him. The trapped Tinkerbell is struggling to escape the armoire, and the commotion of both wakes up the sleeping Wendy.
When the two meet, Peter explains that he has visited the Darling family on many nights, listening to the bed-time stories that Wendy has told her brother so that he can retell them to his friends, the lost boys. They, like Peter, have run away from their parents, to be free of rules, spending the day having great adventures.
Entranced by living a life free of expectations and rules, Wendy and her brothers are soon soaring through the night skies on their way to Neverland. However, the journey is not without its surprises as a jealous Tinkerbell leaves Wendy lost in space.
It sets up the power struggle between the two females that we later see in the play, as another power struggle plays out between Peter and Hook. Hook, we learn, wishes to control the minds of all children who live in the magical world there. At this point, Gunderson ups the play’s interest by showing us a more complex side of the heroic Peter that we have seen before. Is Peter battling Hook to save and protect Neverland, or is he merely playing into his own ego and self-interest?
Fortunately, good wins out over evil, aided by the help of Tiger Lily, a Native American activist, who speaks the truth about Neverland being the original home of her ancestors who guarded the land and protected its inhabitants. Isabella Star LaBlanc stars in the role and is terrifically convincing, particularly when she gets Wendy and Tinkerbell to band together with her in a show of girl power to outsmart all of the men and save the day.
“Peter Pan and Wendy” is a perfect family-friendly production for the holidays, and Gunderson’s new retelling is definitely a reason to catch this beloved classic. Other creative team members who deserve a special mention include costume designer Loren Shaw; lighting designer Isabella Byrd; sound designer John Gromada; and puppet designer James Ortiz whose massive crocodile is delightfully ferocious.