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'Wendy and Peter Pan' adapted by Ella Hickson from the book by J. M. Barrie. THE NORTH AMERICAN PREMIERE

Now onstage until October 27 at the Avon Theatre at the Stratford Festival

Credit: David Hou. Pictured L-R: Jake Runeckles and Cynthia Himenez-Hicks

Guest writer Geoffrey Coulter, actor, director, adjudicator, arts educator

"Peter and Wendy don't soar in this slow and underwhelming trip to Neverland!"

The North American premiere of “Wendy and Peter Pan,” now playing at Stratford’s Avon theatre, is this season’s Schulich Children’s Play. Although the characters in the title and their story are universally familiar to all, the hook here is that this “update” turns J.M. Barrie’s classic children’s novel into a dark, dissonant, and unengaging production, with characters as flat as the pages from which they are conceived.

As a child I remember experiencing Peter Pan through books, movies, plays and laugh-out-loud pantomimes. I couldn’t wait to be whisked away with Peter and the Darling children to a land of adventure and fantasy, full of Lost Boys, Pirates, and fairies. I marvelled at the Darling’s huge dog, Nana, the mystical twinkle of the disembodied Tinkerbell and the fearsomely funny Captain Hook.

Pity that Stratford’s production of Ella Hickson’s 2013 adaptation retains little of the magic, mystery and revelry and the lovable, iconic characters I remember from the original. Instead, we’re left with a haphazard mix of dull performances, confusing antics and sets that aren’t quite up to Stratford’s normally high standards.

In this retelling, the story is seen through the eyes of the protagonist, Wendy Darling. She’s a daring heroine determined not to play den mother to little boys. Peter Pan appears in her nursery and, along with her brothers Michael and John, she flies away to Neverland, teaming up with the Lost Boys and gaining allies of Tink and Tiger Lily to fight the evil, aging Captain Hook. This feminist re-working prominently uncovers some darker themes from the original narrative and introduces new characters such as Tom, a fourth Darling child.

The production blatantly explores themes of death, childhood, grief, spirituality, envy and aging—relevant topics to a modern, young audience. There’s lots of flying and sword fighting, colourful costumes, and silly antics. Still, most characters don’t play enough to the children in the audience and end up two-dimensional and uninteresting.

The unhappy result? Humdrum storytelling. Several children sitting around me at the opening matinee exclaimed to their adults, “What’s happening?” and “Why are they doing that?”

I’m still pondering whether it’s the banal script or lacklustre performances and direction that makes this trip to Neverland rather…average.

Director Thomas Morgan Jones, in his production notes, uses words such as “adventure,” “humour,” “alive “pace,” and “engagement.” Ironically, there’s not much of any of these in this production. He seems to have left his cast to their own devices. When a production features a classic villain or hero from Disney, literature, comic books, or even cartoons, kids expect everything they know about that character to come alive on stage. We know these characters and are eager to take their journey with them.

Unfortunately, major characters seem watered down and lifeless. Peter (Jake Runeckles), Wendy (Cynthia Himenez-Hicks), Tink (Nestor Lozano Jr.), and even Hook (Laura Condlln) are underplayed and, curiously, lack charisma. Peter is missing his mystical whimsy, and Captain Hook (without a hat!) seems more like a wicked stepmother than a menacing, conniving, over-the-top cutthroat. Even Tink is played more the sarcastic drag queen than an enchanted sprite.

Yet there are moments of inspiration, such as The Shadows, Peter’s mischievous team of reflections who move objects, open windows, and carry off humans. The result is an unbalanced, flighty mashup of complexity and commotion.

Robin Fisher’s set is sparse and confusing with a noticeable lack of detail, especially in Darling’s nursery. Nothing seems to be made solidly. Wood seems fake, and small hand props, like Tink in fairy form, are hard to see. The bay window that heralds the arrival of Peter and his shadows is recessed and relatively small, making for unexciting entrances and exits (likely because the other side serves as the entrance to the back-end Hook’s Jolly Roger). Neverland is represented by dangling green fabric from a large arch over the stage. The telescoping palm trees seemed flimsy and delicate.

Several thatched mounds (rooftops) with an attached highchair upstage are mysterious and confusing. What was this location? Hook’s ship, the Jolly Roger featured a large prow with a skeletal figurehead rolled in from backstage. An impressive piece that looked like it still needed some paint and weathering. The wheel end of the ship and a single mast evoked the rest of the vessel.

The highlight was the tick-tocking metal framed crocodile ingeniously fashioned over a recumbent bicycle operated around the stage by Marcus Nance.

Fisher’s costumes were appropriately Victorian for the Darlings, cut rags and old ripped coats for the Lost Boys. Pirates looked right for 18th-century buccaneers, with some splashes of colour and cut, but I did miss an eye patch or even an occasional hat, especially on Hook. Where was her hat? It’s in the promo photos. Pirates need hats!

Lighting designer Arun Srinivasan once again proves his mastery of the art. His designs have shape, contrast, and colour that augment the story with every cue. Romeo Candido’s original compositions and sound design do their part to move the story along with nice twinkling underscores. Andrea Gentry of ZFX nicely achieves flying effects. Actors seemed very comfortable being surreptitiously connected to a wire and pulled up 50 feet into the air.

Performances, as collaborated with the director, largely fall short of their potential. As Wendy, Cynthia Jimenez-Hicks does a fine job playing a feisty 12-year-old with bravery and loyalty to spare but her squeaky high voice never modulates. Noah Beemer and Justin Eddy are just fine as the inquisitive and daring John and Michael Darling. Agnes Tong and Sean Arbuckle make the most of their brief appearances as Mr. and Mrs. Darling.

Jake Runeckles as Peter Pan is mysterious but not enigmatic. He never quite engages. His one-note performance lacks chemistry, especially with Jimenez-Hicks’ Wendy. As Captain Hook, Laura Condlln saunters on and off stage, trying hard to scare and cajole but ultimately coming off as an irrelevant aging villain (a real surprise as her performance as Malvolio in Twelfth Night this season is brilliant!). Tara Sky as Tiger Lilly is colourless and unremarkable. James Daly, as the analytical, smart-mouthed pirate, Martin, had genuinely funny moments, but many of his punchlines were lost due to his hushed and mumbled line delivery.

Fortunately, there’s some fine comedy brought by Sara-Jeanne Hosie as Smee. Her none-too-subtle scenes pining for her captain and love interest are cute and way over the heads of the kids.

While there’s plenty of swordplay, colour, and high-wire work, the production is disjointed and struggles to find its vision. The characters we love and love to hate are reduced to watered-down shadows of the literary classics we know and expect them to be.

It is too bad that the fun of the original “Peter Pan” has been traded for this dissatisfying doppelganger.

Running time: approximately two hours and ten minutes with one interval.
Performances of ‘Wendy and Peter Pan’ continue to October 27 at the Avon Theatre. For tickets: stratfordfestival.ca or call 1-800-567-1600.

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