If you love the story of Peter Pan (and who doesn't?), then the idea of a prequel certainly fires the imagination. How did Peter come to be the boy who won't grow up? How did Captain Hook lose his hand, and is his surname just a happy coincidence?
These answers and a lot more details are provided in Peter and the Starcatcher by Rick Elice, now beginning its third week of production at Dobama Theatre. Inventively staged by director Nathan Motta, and featuring some standout performances, the play with music (by Wayne Barker) had some tasty moments. But back on opening night, the production often felt a bit flat due to some hollow acting by some members of the troupe, as well as a lack of precision in achieving tight ensemble movement.
This play is based on a children's book by renowned humorist Dave Barry and novelist Ridley Pearson. Actually, it's a play-within-a-play as a troupe of 19th century adult British actors convene to tell the tale of a bunch of 13-year-olds and a trio of twosomes. That troika includes two ships, the sleek and fast Wasp and the rundown Neverland, both headed to the kingdom of Rungoon; two chests, one filled with the Queen's treasure and one with sand; and two kids, Peter and Molly, who form the core of the story.
Before the ships disembark, Slank, the sly captain of the Neverland, switches the trunks so the treasure-laden one winds up on his wormy ship. In addition, there are some nasty pirates on the Wasp, intent on stealing the treasure they think is still on their vessel. They are led by a curiously fey fellow named Black Stache, a villain given to seasickness and florid malaprops. Anyone with even a passing understanding of the Peter Pan milieu will know whom Stache will turn out to be. And that anticipation is part of the antic fun of a prequel such as this.
As written, it's an intentionally complex and ragtag storyline, as are most childhood fantasies. And that's a good thing, as long as the actors can help the audience make sense of it all. Plus, in this play the actors have to play like children and make up virtually everything, portraying a band of pirates and other characters, while also setting the scenes with bits and pieces of stuff — an old door here, a stuffed kitty there — to create their world of adventure.
This is a daunting task and on opening night it felt like the ensemble of actors hadn't yet jelled, with the bolts and wires of rehearsal still showing. As a result, the long and unfamiliar exposition that comprises the first act often seems complicated, random and dense instead of richly complex and curiously arcane.
This situation wasn't helped by two performances that hadn't yet captured the special vibe of kids creating their own world of magic and discovery. As Peter, Luke Wehner was more sullen than vulnerable, more a pissed-off tween than a brutalized child seeking some form of solace. This void at the center never gave the audience someone they could adopt and root for. Molly, who is on a secret mission from the Queeen to protect starstuff, should be a feisty and determined lass. Instead, Israel's Molly had a distant, prissy aura that didn't dig into her character's bravery amidst this testosterone festival (all the other actors are male). Plus, neither Wehner nor Israel exhibited the necessary chops as performers to engage and hold the audience in their thrall.
Peter's two pals, Ted and Prentiss, had a couple funny scenes and as Ted, Ryan Thurman made the most of his character's fondness for food, pork in particular. But Kyle Adam never found the comic leverage point for Prentiss, leaving this smaller but key role essentially adrift.
Although much of the ensemble interaction was missing the precise, vaudeville-style timing required, individual actors did some yeoman work. As Alf, Robert Ellis was consistently amusing, Tim Keo excelled in each of his very different roles, James Rankin cadged some laughs as the ever-vigilant nanny, and bristling Joe Pine was under-used in the role of Slank.
Things go much better when the story of Peter Pan and Captain Hook begins to rise to the surface in Act 2. It starts with the pirates dressed haphazardly as mermaids in a production number, and then culminates in a hilarious scene when Black Stache loses his right hand in an unfortunate trunk mishap. In this star-turn role, Christopher Bohan was outrageously campy, completely over-the-top — and gloriously so. His faithful aide Smee was played with vigor by Andrew Gorell.
The good news is that, as the run progresses, this talented group of ensemble actors will likely smooth out their group scenes and find their synchronized sweet spot. That's when Peter will really begin to fly.