Photo: Scott Suchman

In 1999, my husband and I spent two weeks touring Ireland. We arrived in Dublin during the city’s annual Theatre Festival. I was thrilled. My husband, having consumed many pints in many pubs, was in a particularly agreeable mood and suggested that I choose shows for all the evenings we’d be there. I pored through the Festival guide and made our selections.

As we settled into our theater seats that first night, my husband took a look at the playbill. The show was Mabou Mines’ internationally acclaimed Peter and Wendy. I guess it wasn’t what my husband had in mind. “Peter Pan?” he demanded, “We’re seeing f***ing Peter Pan?” His use of an expletive (in a crowded theatre with many children, I’m sorry to say) was less surprising than his almost immediate change of heart. Within moments of the lights dimming, my husband, along with the other thousand in the audience, was enthralled.

Peter and Wendy is unlike any other contemporary production of the famous story of the boy who wouldn’t grow up. And yet, in many ways, it is closer to author J.M. Barrie’s original work. Based on the novel Barrie wrote years after his hit play Peter Pan, Mabou Mines’ production focuses less on the carefree adventures of Neverland, and more on the profound sadness inherent in its opening lines … “All children grow up. They all know they will grow up. They always know after they’re two. Two is the beginning of the end.”

My husband and I saw several different plays that week in Dublin. The only one we remember is Peter and Wendy. Not only did it make a lasting impression, but we have actively sought it out during the years since. Although we missed it in Edinborough and Washington D.C., we have been able to catch it twice in New York. Most recently, we attended a limited run at the New Victory Theatre on 42nd Street. For the first time, we were able to bring our daughter. She was only 2 when we saw it in Ireland. Now, at 13, she is well on her way to being a grownup.

There are many factors that combine to make Peter and Wendy such an extraordinary piece of theater. The poetry of the language, most of which comes verbatim from Barrie’s novel, is set against haunting original Celtic music by the late composer Johnny Cunningham. The ingenious all-white set, designed by Julie Archer, resembles nothing so much as a children’s pop-up book. Nursery items, such as beds, a toy chest, books and linen are transformed into the lost boys’ hideout, mermaid lagoon and the sinister Jolly Roger. We are transported into the imagination of a child, while constantly reminded that we can only observe. As adults, we are not able to live there anymore.

One of the things that attracted me to Peter and Wendy in the first place (and certainly one of the things that worried my husband when he read that playbill years ago) is that almost all of the characters are presented through puppets, designed by Guggenheim fellow Basil Twist. Using a style from Indonesia, called Bunraku, seven puppeteers manipulate the characters in full view of the audience. Clothed in long white dresses or pants and vests, the puppeteers wear veiled hats that obscure their human features and give them an air of Victorian beekeepers. The effect is both naïve and sophisticated. The audience can see every move of the puppeteer — there is no doubt that Peter is a jointed wooden doll or Nana a quilted poof of fabric — yet, the choreography is astounding. One highlight is a puppeteer who dances a complex tango with Hook’s nemesis crocodile, as plaintive songstress Siobhan Miller sings the reptile’s plans to “Lick away his fears and wash him down with crocodile tears.”

The puppets, which range from paper cut-outs to shadow puppets, wooden dolls and fabric scraps, are joined by a single live actor, listed simply as “The Narrator.” The extraordinary Karen Kandel tells the story, plays the heroine Wendy, and voices some 25 other characters. She is onstage virtually every minute of the two-and-a-half hour show, and it is through her nearly heartbreaking narrative that we understand and relive the careless joys of the Darling children … and the care-full sorrows of the Darling parents.

Photo: Guardian UK

Kandel, an associate artist with Mabou Mines, originated the role working with director Lee Breuer and adaptor Liza Lorwin for five years. She has won critical acclaim as well as multiple awards for it, including an Obie, the Off-Broadway equivalent of a Tony Award. She is an interesting and multitalented performer; in her more than 30-year career, she has pursued acting, storytelling, writing and visual art.

At times during Peter and Wendy, Kandel not only portrays Wendy and voices Peter, but remarkably does both simultaneously. Watching her closely, you see how she uses an ebullient physicality to draw your attention when Wendy is speaking and diverts attention when Peter is speaking. Similarly, there is a delightful exchange between Mr. and Mrs. Darling in the first act. Spinning a bowler on a stick and waltzing with it, Kandel is able to portray both parents. She is a wicked yet “classy” James Hook, a determined Tiger Lily, and a motley crew of lost boys. She uses a twinkling finger cymbal to portray the cheeky Tinkerbell.

Kandel’s performance has rightly been called a “tour de force.” Yet it is incredibly intimate and impossible to forget.

In this decidedly un-Disney version of the Peter Pan story, the most touching moments are found before and after the children’s flight. The Darlings blame themselves for “the tragedy,” and Mrs. Darling vows to keep the nursery window open in hope that her babies will return. But, children being children, Wendy, John and Michael are too caught up in their own story to miss their happy home. When they do finally decide to return it seems more an act of petulance than any sincere homesickness. The result is the same however. Mrs. Darling welcomes them back, along with the lost boys whom she happily adopts, and offers Peter a home as well. Peter, we learn, is far too clever for that. He won’t be a man! He won’t!

In the final bittersweet scene, we see Wendy as an adult, playing with her own little girl Jane. Peter, having lost track of time (as one is wont to do in Neverland), arrives to bring Wendy home with him for spring cleaning. It is too late for Wendy is an adult, “ever so much more than 20.” Instead, he seduces little Jane, filling her imagination with the charms that had worked on her mother, teaching her to fly.

Wendy rushes to the window and in a desperate moment calls, “I wish I could go with you.” Her daughter laughs at her, “You see, you can’t fly.”

And in the final moments of the show, we fully understand the hopeless conflict between the child and the adult. Kandel brought virtually every grownup to tears as her mellifluous voice explained, “And as Wendy waved farewell, Jane has waved farewell, and it’s Jane’s child now, who waves from the window, in thrall to the breath of the night sky, where her child is flying, gay and innocent, and heartless.”

We left the theater, dabbing at our eyes, and passed another show about a flying boy. The New Victory where we had just spent an enchanting evening happens to be next door to the Foxwoods Theatre, home of Julie Taymor’s ill-fated Spider-Man, Turn Off The Dark. It occurred to me that what we had just seen was not only far less expensive (by about $100 per ticket), but also far more affecting. Peter and Wendy did not have to deal with the myriad technical issues that have plagued Spider-Man. There were no dangerous aerial feats, no near-death experiences for the cast, no tabloid headlines about prima donna directors and rock star composers.

Instead, Peter and Wendy, made the most of what the theater can achieve. It swept us up in a story that engaged our senses and our imagination. Its melancholy message will stay with me for a long time … certainly until I have the pleasure of seeing it again.

 

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