Peter Pan at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival

The Stratford Festival’s Peter Pan is not a stage version of the Disney movie, nor is it the dreadful musical play version that schools often do. It’s the original.

Two minutes before showtime, the only empty seat in the Avon Theater was right in front of us.  A woman explained to us that when her little son saw the gauze screen veiling the stage, he remembered a movie that had scared him, began crying, and had to be taken out.  The boy never did see the splendid sets or costumes or any of the wonderfully choreographed action of Peter Pan in person; he watched it all on the lobby monitor with his grandmother.

This was a shame, we thought afterward, because this was just the sort of Peter Pan that a fainthearted child could safely enjoy.  The Darling children’s father (Sanjay Talwar), lampooned and patronized by his wife and children, is neither formidable nor fearsome.  The pirates are lovably cartoonish, and the bumbling, benign Captain Hook (Tom McCamus) won’t inspire nightmares.

As for Neverland’s savage Indians — wait, this Peter Pan doesn’t have any Indians!  — merely playful, posing, sexy “Amazons”.  We’ll have more to say in a later post about this alarming capitulation to the tyranny of political correctness.  (Here it is.)

J. M. Barrie

In short, even though this Peter Pan is still a ripping children’s adventure tale, it’s painted in broad strokes and scrubbed of whatever might either offend or stimulate. And it betrays the influence of decades of Disney and Pixar cartoon features. An essay in the program reminded us that Peter Pan topped one drama scholar’s list of the finest English language plays of the twentieth century.  (Emsworth, who is devoted to J. M. Barrie’s novels as well as to his plays, would rank it nearly as high.)  But this production does not suggest nearly enough of the psychological complexity of this dark play — too little of what puts Peter Pan in the ranks of plays like PygmalionDeath of a Salesman, and Fences.

At the Shaw Festival in 2000 we were fortunate to see a Peter Pan that did, indeed, mine the riches of James M. Barrie’s play, a show that is among our most memorable theater experiences.  We will remember the Stratford Festival’s Peter Pan, on the other hand, mostly because it was our eldest grandson’s very first play.

Boy and swan along the banks of the Stratford-on-Avon

Our excursion to Stratford, Ontario with this seven-year-old was a great success.  He tolerated the long drive and back with admirable patience, had fun trying to feed the swans along the river, was mesmerized by the play, and thrilled at the swordfights and the crocodile. And he never ran out of questions.  Were these real pirates?  Is Captain Hook really dead?  Does the man write a different play every night?  (In this production there’s a narrator — not J. M. Barrie’s idea, but intended to represent him — who sits at a table to the side of the stage writing the play, which unfolds in his imagination before our eyes.)

Michael Therriault as Irving Berlin in the 2009 Broadway musical “Tin Pan Alley Rag”

There’s still a lot to enjoy in this show, including plenty of clever sight gags and fine acting from the entire large cast.  Michael Therriault bucks the tradition of casting a slender woman as Peter Pan; he is lithe and acrobatic, vain and cocky, with a strong stage presence.  Our grandson noticed right away, though, that Mr. Therriault doesn’t look much like a boy.  We had to agree; in fact, the 36-year-old actor is a good deal closer to his grandpa’s age than to his. We also noticed that the diminutive figure of Michael, the youngest of the Darling children (played by Stacie Steadman), was not very boyish.

We thought Sanjay Talwar was a riot as Mr. Darling and that the ensemble work of the Lost Boys was immensely entertaining.  Sara Topham was an excellent Wendy — although the way she delivered some of her lines gave me flashbacks to The Importance of Being Ernest, in which Ms. Topham played Gwendolen Fairfax last year in Stratford (see Emsworth’s thoughts on that worthy show).

Sara Topham last season as Gwendolyn Fairfax

J. M. Barrie’s original 1904 stage play has no part for a narrator, but this show does (James Kirriemuir, who, unlike the other actors, is miked for sound). The narration is, at least, still the playwright’s prose, for the most part, taken either from his detailed stage directions, which help make the original play a joy to read, or from Peter and Wendy, the tremendously popular novelization of the play that Barrie himself wrote five years later.  Still, we felt there was too much of it.

Why a narrator at all?  We suppose Brit director Tim Carroll saw it as a device for speaking directly to the patrons; at one point the narrator invited us to chime in on which of several episodes in Neverland they’d like to see played.

But Peter Pan already includes the most famous bit of audience participation in modern theater: the moment when, with the fairy Tinkerbelle’s life hanging in the balance, Peter Pan asks the children in the audience to clap if they believe in fairies.  We thought having Mr. Barrie address the audience detracted from the thrill and uniqueness of the “save Tinkerbelle” moment.

We missed the play’s final coda (Mr. Barrie wrote it but regarded as optional) in which Peter returns to take Wendy back to Neverland for “spring cleaning” after she has grown up and has a daughter of her own.  But this wistful, sentimental scene did not belong, perhaps, in a production like this.

As promised, Emsworth’s thoughts on the Stratford Festival’s thoroughly disgraceful capitulation to political correctness — a Peter Pan without Tiger Lily, the Indian princess! — are at this post.

More broadly, Emsworth’s pre-season thoughts on the entire lineup of shows at the Stratford Festival in 2010 are at this post.

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