Imaginative viewers fill in the blanks at the Kennedy Center’s ‘Peter and the Starcatcher’

February 6
Joey deBettencourt makes contact with a ladder-based mermaid (Benjamin Schrader) as Edward Tournier watches in the background in “Peter and the Starcatcher.” (Jenny Anderson)
Joey deBettencourt makes contact with a ladder-based mermaid (Benjamin Schrader) as Edward Tournier watches in the background in “Peter and the Starcatcher.” (Jenny Anderson)

“Peter and the Starcatcher,” now at the Kennedy Center, needs you. Not just to fill the seats, but to fill the stage.

The Tony Award-winning play, based on “Peter and the Starcatchers,” a 2004 young adult novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, tells the story of Peter Pan before he was Peter Pan. The stage is packed with ships and oceans and crocodiles, none of which you actually get to see. Instead, a dozen actors create the scenes with their bodies, and household items like ropes, ladders and umbrellas.

For example, at one point, star Joey deBettencourt takes on the momentous role of a wall. (For most of the play, he’s Boy, the adult-hating dreamer who becomes Peter.)

“A lot of time being a wall is more about following the exact choreography of the scene,” he says. It’s not exactly a Method moment for him; the wall doesn’t have an in-depth backstory or anything. “What I’m thinking about is standing in exactly the right place.”

Taking the stage as living scenery gives deBettencourt and the other actors opportunities not available in tech-heavy shows.

“Since we as actors sometimes are walls or doorways or things like that, everyone is involved in every scene,” deBettencourt says. “It’s a very convenient way of getting everyone to be involved.”

“When you go see a show and there’s a moment when someone flies or something, people immediately start trying to figure out how it’s done, saying ‘Oh, they use that wire, and that other wire goes there,’ ” deBettencourt says. “There’s something more exciting about ‘We’re gonna do this, but we’re gonna do it without technology. We’re going to create it with just our bodies.’ ”

The low-tech staging means the audience needs to be involved as well, filling in the blanks with their imaginations: When the actors tell you to see an ocean, that ocean is entirely up to you. DeBettencourt says that mental collaboration is particularly important at the end, when Boy makes his transformation into Neverland’s most famous resident.

“The island is this amazing imaginative world he lives in,” deBettencourt says. “And everyone in the audience is imagining what Neverland is like. Everyone creates their own Neverland.”

Backstory

A prequel to the story by J. M. Barrie, “Peter and the Starcatcher” starts with a lonely orphan who has lost his trust in adults. Onboard a ship named The Neverland, he meets Molly, the daughter of a lord, who is out to save a quantity of magic starstuff. The evil pirate Black Stache wants the starstuff, too. Throughout, the actors depict shipwrecks, heroic rescues and fantasy creatures through movement and simple props.

Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW; through Feb. 16, $55-$135; 202-467-4600. (Foggy Bottom) 

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