Australian theater company Belvoir brings their take on J.M. Barrie’s classic, Peter Pan, to New York City to kick off the new season at The New Victory Theater. Their adaptation takes place in a 1980s suburban Australian bedroom. In the first few moments of the show, Nana, the dog played by John Leary, stands up and starts vacuuming, a surefire sign that this production may undermine all of your expectations.
Even as this adaptation held pretty close to the source material, the staging felt incredibly contemporary. We never leave the bedroom set, except that we totally do. Even as a mere banner hung across the wall signaled the entry into Neverland, there was no question that the audience came along for the ride. Peter Pan enters the bedroom where Wendy and her brothers are asleep, determined to find his shadow, which Mrs. Darling has hidden in the closet. There’s a lovely moment, reminiscent of the Marx Brothers, where Peter, played by Meyne Wyatt, is trying to get his shadow, played by Gareth Davies, to attach to him. Wendy connects them with needle and thread as both Peter and his shadow cry out in pain. The shadow-actor hides under the bed just at the moment of reattachment, then the lights take over and Peter’s real shadow appears. The kids (and the grown-up kids) responded well to the magical moments like that. When the three children take flight, it’s not on cables that send them soaring above the stage, but rather on the feet of their fellow actors. Huge applause for that bit.
A talented, hilarious cast of nine actors play all of the roles. It made things a little confusing (it helps to go in knowing a fair bit of Peter Pan), but Olive seemed to make sense of it all. Interestingly, the only character not played by an actor was Tinkerbell. She was played by the whole cast, as they twinkled lights and rang bells throughout the set to show how she darts around the room. I’m so tempted to share every last detail of this production with you … the bed that turns into a pirate ship!, the drum set!, arm wrestling with Captain Hook! … but you should see the show for yourself, and let these delightful surprises wash over you like a blanket representing the ocean. (That’s in the show, too. See what I did there?)
I was telling some friends who are involved in theater about the show tonight, and one friend said that it sounds like a broke theater company… that the broke ones are always the most inventive. I can’t vouch for how broke they are, but Belvoir is certainly inventive. Peter Pan is representative of the kind of kid-friendly innovation I’m coming to expect from The New Victory. I was thinking back to a year or two ago when Olive and I went to see The Little Prince at The New Victory. They had a super simple set of a circular canvas, but there was a moment in the show where the canvas stretched upwards to make mountains. Olive gasped with the magic of it. Then, a month or two later, we went to see Mary Poppins on Broadway, and despited the high-end high tech theater effects in that, nothing delighted her as much as those mountains. In the program for Peter Pan, Belvoir’s Artistic Director Ralph Myers writes, “A Belvoir we believe the best theater requires the audience to use their imaginations. Believing in what’s happening on stage is like believing in fairies; you have to make yourself believe.” I would argue that this approach is even more important in shows for kids. Peter Pan and the other shows I’ve seen at The New Victory gets this right.
Catch Peter Pan quickly. It’s short run ends next Sunday, October 13. But check out the other kids’ offerings at The New Victory. It looks to be a great season.
We were provided tickets for the show.