Friday, June 26, 2009

Hey, Dionysus! Here's One for the PANtheon...

Well, I’ve been hailing it as
THE Peter Pan event of our lifetime.
Regardless of how it turned out, good or bad, that statement holds true. In historic terms, I’d rank it above the P.J. Hogan 2003 film. Since Peter Pan began as a play, this production took the origins to a new level while returning the story to his “birthplace.”

So, did I like it? If you read a few posts back, you’ll know that on the whole, yes I did. I had a few issues with it. But not enough to outweigh the truly magical experience they created.

Before I go on in detail about the “Good Form” and “Bad Form” of the show, I want to address the “style” of the production. I tried to avoid reviews of it prior to leaving for London. I caught snippets, though. (Couldn’t help it.) Just enough to see that many people found themselves enchanted. Some, however, not so much. Barrie’s words (for the revival scene of Tinker Bell in the novel Peter and Wendy) apply: Many clapped. Some didn’t. A few beasts hissed. And just what did they “hiss” about? Some claim it lacked strong acting, missing the depth of the work. I disagree, but that’s a matter of opinion. Complaints did come, however, about the “technological” aspect of the show. Some felt that the glamour and glitter and hi-tech spectacle of it sucked the life out of it, saying that the show is not about high tech, it’s about using one’s imagination. No argument on the imagination part. But then, let’s examine what Barrie himself tried to do with the play.

Consider that if Barrie had his way, Tinker Bell would have been achieved via a reverse telescope effect, so that a real living person could appear as a tiny fairy on stage. It turned out not to be feasible, of course. But seriously, how much more hi-tech can one get for 1904? Consider also that Peter Pan revolutionized the concept of “flying” on stage. A whole new “techno” brought to the stage for this play. Also factor in the number of locations required: a nursery, a forest, underground, the ocean with a big rock and a freaking pirate ship. That’s a lot of scenery and set building. Add in that Barrie wanted it as convincing as possible… NOW try and tell me that the show isn’t about state-of-the-art!

Therefore, bringing the new-fangled dimension of CGI 360° projection is not only a good idea for this show, I’d like to think Barrie would have jumped on the wind’s back with it. Plus, animation (the way we know it today) had been in its infancy at the time of putting up Peter Pan. The first feature animated film did not appear until 1906. Perhaps Barrie would have chosen to incorporate moving drawings, too.

Even if that does not convince you that the hi-tech gadgetry belongs in this show, Peter Pan: Kensington Gardens utilized plenty of traditional or “old school” methods. It did not rely on one kind of staging or the other. All in all, a great pairing of old and new to bring about the most magic.

Okay, with that out of the way, on to the show itself.
Let me warn you, however, I am going to talk about specific events and moments in the show. If you do not wish to read “spoilers” then read no further, content in knowing that I did find myself transported for the evening.

Still reading? Okay, then, on to the “Good Form,” a la what I enjoyed. Well, that would be some of the changes they made. “Whoa there, Von Brown! You liked changes?!” you might be asking. Changes to, yes, contradictions to, never. I’ve mentioned before how Barrie tweaked it over and over and from medium to medium. Peter Pan: Kensington Gardens promised to be a new adaptation, deriving elements of the play as well as the book. They accomplished their goal. One of my favorite moments happened from this line in the book: [Peter] breathed intentionally quick short breaths at the rate of about five to a second. He did this because there is a saying in the Neverland that, every time you breathe, a grown-up dies; and Peter was killing them off vindictively as fast as possible. He does exactly this in the show. Right at the same scene as the book. When the Darlings and Lost Boys announce they are going back to the mainland, Peter tromps arounds with his quick breaths and flaps crooked arms while doing it. [He is “part bird,” you know.] But the inclusion here is not where its use is most poignant. In this production, to my utter surprise and sheer delight, they do in fact have the “epilogue” bit, when Peter Pan returns for Wendy only to discover she has grown up and has a daughter of her own. They omit some lines, write in some others… but most shockingly, Peter begins his huffing rant, yelling “Ad-dult! Ad-dult!” as he does struts and puffs. He is trying to kill grown-up Wendy! What a fantastically unnerving addition. Two more unsettling moments are added to the epilogue. I just mentioned added dialogue. Most notably, Wendy tries to get Peter to understand that they’re all gone, John, Michael… and then she says “Nibs, Curly… they’ve all grown up and have boring jobs.” “No,” protests Pan, “they don’t. And who are they anyway?” This cut me to the quick. A true gasp. Okay, we knew that he’d forgotten the Lost Boys along with Captain Hook and Tinker Bell. But to actually point out, out loud, that he forgot them! So sad. But that’s not the only variation in this scene which stirred the soul. Wendy is supposed to leave for a bit, flustered with Peter’s inability to cope and come back only to find him talking with Jane. After some discussion, Jane is allowed to go with him. But the Kensington Gardens show, however, does it differently. In Wendy’s absence Peter’s crying wakes up Jane, as per the story. Boy, why are you crying? Peter Pan stands up, bows, and the lights go out. Oooo! Quite a chilling ending! Bravo.

Okay, there’s no masking the fact: the 360° CGI projection is just damn cool. From showing the lights going out in the Bloomsbury windows at the beginning to swirling both London and the Neverland by each other to show passage of time (just before the scene described above), it’s a masterpiece of imagination and engineering. And the piece d'resistance: Flying over London. The effect they wanted? It’s achieved. It’s absolutely stunning and enchanting. Yes, you really do feel as if you’re moving high above the city. When on board the Jolly Roger it actually rocks, its creaking is heard, the sea trickles, the flag waves and both fore and aft of the ship are shown, with the stage making up the middle. Another fabulous use of the techno-magic comes at the battle scene on the ship. At one point, as he should, Pan flies up to the rigging. As he rises, so moves the video of the ship along with him! Another wonderful motion effect. Hook mimes climbing up after him (see? “old school”) and a beam pops up from the stage and their swordplay resumes on the “mast.” I must say, I really did feel way high up with them. Bravo!

We liked all the actors’ performances. The children are all played by adults but one might never know. Abby Ford is a marvelous Wendy Darling, ever so convincing as a preteen girl. It didn’t feel like she pretended at all. So make-believe and true merged, just as for Peter Pan. And Peter? Ciaran Kellgren managed to capture a rambunctious boy beautifully. I will admit that it caused me to re-appreciate Jeremy Sumpter’s portrayal. But that is not a reflection of poor quality of any kind to Kellgren. After all, acting on stage is different in many ways than it is for the screen. And since here Peter Pan had to be conveyed “from a distance,” he could not have pulled it off better. Sweet and sour, as needs be. And what of the other main character - Hook? Jonathan Hyde, who can also be seen in Cameron’s Titanic, delivered a top notch, formidable Captain. And not a comedic one, thank heavens. Oh sure, he had his humorous moments…but then, Hook does. But Hyde gave us the true cut-throat pirate Hook is rather than a bumbling, sniveling fool so often seen. (And the hook on the correct hand!) As for the rest of the cast, they deserve praise, to be sure. Not a bad apple in the bunch. Bravi!

Another example of “old school” theatre might actually be a “newer” form. Here in Chicago we are blessed to have the Redmoon Theatre company. Their work with puppetry is astounding. No, not THAT kind of puppet. We’re talking complex, majorly articulated (and often massive) constructions that have a magical quality all their own. Peter Pan: Kensington Gardens took a page from Redmoon. Nana and the Crocodile and a few birds came to life via this form of make-believe. I’d been ever so curious how they would accomplish the animals at this staging. A triumph. (Although I cannot help but wonder if Barrie would have objected to seeing the man manipulating Nana and the people operating the enormous crocodile. He seemed to be a stickler for making it seem effortless and real.)

I rather enjoyed Peter’s costume, too. Very atypical, yet not out of place. A kind of tapestry draped over his shoulders, with a bit of feathers at the top. It hung down beyond his waist, bunched up, looking rather like a bird’s tail. If you’re not aware, Pan in the original stage production sported a little cape, too. (Which is partially why I included one in Peter Pan’s NeverWorld.) Bare chested. Brown pants, cut off at the knee.

The music, by Benjamin Wallfisch, proved sublime. Just as adventurous and whisking as a Peter Pan score should sound.

I’m sure I could tell you more about the glorious aspects of this production, but I’ll move on…

“Bad Form,” unfortunately, also crept in quite a bit. First and foremost, Tinker Bell. I knew going into this show that she would be played by a person. I’m sorry, I just don’t like this at all. For why, see this post. Again, that is not to say that Itxaso Moerno’s performance lacked. Far from it. Despite the “size” I enjoyed her Tink. (Which is quite an accomplishment, as I’m not altogether that fond of Miss Bell in general.) In this show she starts off as a light (and a rather cool one at that) but when she emerges from the drawer (although here it is a trunk) she’s magically bigger. (I say magically also in the sense of the “magic trick” of a person appearing in a box which had been empty.) From then on, she’s a feisty little lady in a tutu and something like combat boots. Really? Also, there seems to be no fairy dust in this version. Instead, Tink begrudgingly and exasperatedly stands in front of each Darling kid and hoists her right leg way up the air while thrusting a thumbs up sign above her head and yelling out “UP!” They can then fly. Admittedly it’s funny, but…um? Really? We couldn’t have a sprinkling of glitter here?

Speaking of flying, I found myself quite perturbed that Peter Pan does not actually fly through the window. The window’s there. It opens of its own accord. But…he does not come through it. Instead, he lowers from the ceiling. Okay, yes, this might be a limitation of being staged in a tent. But come on now, Peter Pan flies through the window…that’s the “whole thing,” you know? I felt cheated.

Remember me saying that Barrie did not so much want to the technicality to be seen? I kept thinking he would have hated this part. Which part? Very often in the show, it’s quite obvious that the characters are hooking themselves back up to the flying rigging. Nitpicking? Oh, sure, perhaps. But I’m “just saying” because Barrie specifically wrote in a whole scene so this very thing does not happen! He didn’t want the audience to be aware that the actress put the wiring back on…so we get Pan hiding behind the curtain to avoid being seen by Liza, responding to Nana’s warning barks. Here, however, it’s blatant. Every time. I don’t mean to suggest that they could have avoided it, especially as it’s theatre in the round… just mentioning that it made me think Barrie might wince.

This same scene is the subject of another curious alteration. We all know that Mr. & Mrs. Darling leave the house to go to a party, right? Well, not here. Instead, they are giving their own party downstairs. It adds a bit of drama, I suppose… that Pan is kidnapping their children right out from under (above?) them. But not so much that it warrants making the change. I believe they wanted to steer clear of the whole crazy business with Liza the maid and did not want to have to stage Nana running across town to fetch them. So, I understand it on one level and cock my head on another.

There are no Indians/Redskins/Native Americans, save Tiger Lily. They’re mentioned, they have (off stage) the battle over the Underground House with the pirates. But otherwise, they don’t exist. Just the Redskin Princess. This is probably due to production costs or some similar matter. It’s not egregious, but it did, again, make me cock my head and take me out of the action of the play for a spell.

They eliminated the Twins, as well. Maybe the smaller space of round stage would be too cluttered? And they are, in some ways, extraneous. But then, they replaced them with a strange bird character. (And someone to control it.)

The mermaids. Oh good grief. I do not wish to belittle in any way the marvelous and mesmerizing movements of the talented gymnast, Fiona Lait, who portrayed a mermaid. She’s to be commended on her gymnastics and feats of control alongside a rope high up in the air. Yes, you read that right. A rope to twist around, stretch out upon. etc. Honestly, the rope did not prove the real problem. The lack of a tail…or even fins of any kind seemed to be the issue. What could have been an otherwise spectacular scene turned lackluster in this instance. For the first time anywhere (that I know of) we are taken beneath the Mermaid Lagoon and Marooner’s Rock. Oh, how cool, right? Indeed so. A watery landscape, with schools of fish, sea turtles…fabulously fun. And then, a rope drops down from the tent and this “mermaid” emerges from the stage and does her (otherwise magnificent) bit. Really? I felt so bad for Bart, who is a huge fan of mermaids. Couldn’t they have at least given us a CGI mermaid along with the astonishing acrobatics? Or a tail? Fins? Oh well.

There might be other tidbits that rubbed me the wrong way, such as the Crocodile having one line (though I am fully aware it’s “for the kids”), but I can’t recall any glaring ones… and I suppose that’s a good sign.

So, there you have it. All in all, a most wonderful production.
Truly historic, in so many more ways than one.
Much to love, much to shake a head over. But over all, pure magic.
I like to believe that Barrie would have felt the same way.

Thank you, director Ben Harrison and designer William Dudley.
And to all the cast and crew, thank you.
Yours is a Peter Pan to remember!

1 comment:

Danielle Mari said...

I'm guessing that "production costs" on this one were never a consideration! I mean--- come on. Did they really spare expense? Doesn't sound like it. Just some odd choices, as you point out.
SO glad you liked it, though. And it must have been good, as you are easily the toughest Pan critic out there. Welcome home!

[WOTD: suity]