A university is the ideal place to stage the story of a boy who never wants to grow up; few understand the sentiment of wanting to be a little kid and have fun forever better than those of us on the cusp of adulthood. As we stress over midterms, job recruitment, and our impending entrance into the “real world,” the Peter Pan way of life becomes the unattainable ideal. Peter is the ultimate procrastinator, using his particular brand of fantastical avoidance to stay young forever.
Our admiration of Peter’s eternal youth makes it all the more ironic that the Players’ Theatre interpretation of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan is not intended for children. Those nostalgically searching for the Disney-esque adventure of their childhoods had best look elsewhere; director Kelly Richmond and her cast have restored Peter Pan to all of its violent, tragic, and somewhat unsettling glory. The characters are darker, the body count is high, and the sexual tension is unexpectedly prominent for a story about youthful innocence. Parental discretion is advised.
The play begins when lights fade in on an ordinary-looking bedroom. As the familiar-looking members of the Darling family enter the scene, the audience relaxes and settles in for a story they presumably know well. Once the characters begin to interact, this sense of ease disappears—these are not the characters imagined by Walt Disney. Mr. Darling (Jeff Araujo) is deceitful and childish; Wendy Darling (Charlotte Doucette) is antagonistic; the usually sweet Mrs. Darling (Maka Ngwenya) comes off as harsh. Despite the slow pace of the first scene, these unexpected personalities and the dynamics between the characters stave off any potential dullness.
As the story moves to Neverland, the pace picks up. With an impressive set change facilitated by the cast themselves, the audience is transported to a land of adventure. More unexpectedly nasty characters appear, from a spiteful Tinkerbell to murderous mermaids. The pirates are loud and fearsome, Tiger Lily and her braves are quietly unnerving, and fights erupt every few minutes. The use of contrast between the fantasy world and the real one emphasizes the other-worldliness that exemplifies Neverland.
The play’s main character, Peter Pan, is brought to life by Rebecca Pearl. Pearl brings new dimensions to the captain of the Lost Boys, successfully portraying the fear and mania beneath his cocky exterior. Through her impressive performance, Pearl creates a tragic hero: a character to both applaud and pity as he fights against the inevitable passing of time.
Much needed comic relief comes in the form of the Lost Boys. Jordan Pollock, Shanti Gonzales, James Worsnop and Sophie van Bastelaer bring a wonderful childishness to Nibs, Slightly, Curly, and Tootles. Their amusing antics and adorable misunderstandings add lightness to this otherwise heavy tale. You will be hard pressed not to ‘aww’ at Tootles’ pouting and Slightly’s naiveté.
One of Richmond’s most interesting directorial choices is the inclusion of a narrator—a voyeur of sorts—in the form of the author himself: J.M. Barrie (Mark Weissfelner). Barrie sits with the audience, explaining the story and commenting on Peter’s thoughts and actions. Weissfelner perfectly portrays an author’s connection to his characters, giving Barrie’s interactions with Peter a paternal feel. Often voicing what the audience is thinking, Weissfelner as Barrie connects the dream of eternal youth in Neverland to reality, where wanting only to have fun is our greatest fantasy.
Turning a well-known children’s story into something challenging and thought provoking is no easy feat, but the Players’ production of Peter Pan pulls it off. Richmond and her crew shatter expectations, creating a show with depth that manages to surprise even those who think they are familiar with the tale.
Peter Pan runs from Feb. 26th – March 1 at 8 p.m. at Players’ Theatre (SSMU Building). Student tickets are $6.