Everyone knows that northeast Ohio is losing population, with more than 16,000 people leaving the area last year alone. We might be able to reverse that trend if more folks find their way to Porthouse Theatre -- particularly when Matthew Earnest is directing.
Last summer, Earnest mounted a sublimely simple and tone-perfect staging of Our Town. This summer, he's flying high with a non-musical version of Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie.
Earnest's production palette is a basic one, with raw wood platforms, a scruffy-winged bird, and actors who double as stagehands. But it's the imagination that's fancy in this enthralling work, adding heaping dollops of fantasy just where they're needed to augment this enduring childhood fairy tale.
The surprises begin almost immediately as Mr. and Mrs. Darling, along with their personified dog/nurse Nana, begin the show mourning the disappearance of their three rug rats. (It would be a shame to give anything away, so just keep your eye on the bucket.)
From that point on, it's clear that everything is fair game for this director, but he never indulges any of his clever gambits to excess. When a wall-mounted light switch is required, a stagehand walks out and holds it in the correct position, then leaves without fanfare. Playing against a white drop cloth with the kind of crude carpentry and furniture one might find in a ten-year-old's playhouse, the atmosphere established by Earnest and his scenic designer Steve Pauna captures the rough-and-tumble games in which all kids revel.
Since the house platform as the pirate ship and the lost boys' subterranean home, there can be some confusion as to who is where at any given point. And the timing of some scenes is a bit slow. Still, the creativity of Earnest's vision trumps any small problems, especially when Peter and the three Darling kids fly over a city represented by little houses stuck on the end of poles carried by cast members.
In general, the energetic Porthouse players are a delight, with nine young men easily shifting from the Lost Boys to redskins and mermaids (who thrash their burlap bag "tails" in a sea suggested by blue plastic wrap stretched around the edge of the stage). Emily Pote is a wide-eyed Wendy and a quite believable pretend mother.
As Peter, Jonathan Ramos is remarkably unaffected, which works to his benefit at times. But in other moments, his lack of vocal presence saps the energy from scenes. John Woodson is a consistent, scenery-chewing treasure as Captain Hook (he's also Mr. Darling), lovingly caressing his garden-claw hand with undisguised ardor.
While many plays never offer one real surprise, this excursion to Neverland has an eyebrow-raiser every couple of minutes. So let's hope Earnest makes Porthouse an annual stop -- for those of us who plan on sticking around.