Scott Suchman/Arena Stage
'Peter And Wendy': We Believe
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 7, 2007
From the very start of "Peter and Wendy," the elegant and eye-pleasing reworking of "Peter Pan" created by the company Mabou Mines, you get the feeling that spirits kindred to Peter's creator, J.M. Barrie, are at play. For out of what looks at first like a mere collection of soggy brown rags, a team of puppeteers brings the furrowed visage of watchful Nana wittily to life.
Nana, as any 8- or 10- or 50-year-old child knows, is the pet and guardian to Wendy and her Darling brothers, who fall in league with a flying boy who refuses to age. As with the other indelible characters of Barrie's story, Nana is provided in this enchanted version with something more than personality: She seems to possess a soul. And through her inanimate puppet eyes, you imagine at times you're seeing into one.
That's the sensation of warmth that hovers over "Peter and Wendy," which is ensconced for a spell in Arena Stage's Kreeger Theater. The production by Mabou Mines, a fixture of New York experimental theater, was hatched more than a decade ago at the Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, S.C., and is just now reaching Washington.
As directed by Mabou's co-founder, Lee Breuer, this adaptation is a lyrical blend of puppets and actors, ballads with a Celtic lilt and deceptively simple stagecraft with an air of bewitchment. It doesn't necessarily take a tomboy actress, soaring on cables over the stage and singing "I Won't Grow Up," to translate Peter's charms. "Peter and Wendy" demonstrates that this can also be accomplished with a pint-size mop-top puppet and up to four puppeteers fluidly manipulating his parts to the sound of a slide whistle.
Because it's long (the show runs a solid 2 1/2 hours), and the narrative is at times a bit dense, the production probably is not geared for the very little ones -- except perhaps for little ones who qualify both for Gymboree and Mensa. There are times, in fact, when the storytelling is carried to such luxurious lengths that even an indulgent adult might want to take scissors to it.
But restlessness inevitably surrenders here to beguilement. Breuer and his creative accomplices allow their own imaginations free range, and so they manage to make the familiar episodes of the story seem as if we're learning of them for the first time.
Absolutely key to the pleasure of this version is the contribution of actress Karen Kandel, who not only narrates Peter's adventures but also invents a distinct voice and affect for each of the major characters, all of them assayed by puppets. (The techniques range from humanlike bunraku puppets to two-dimensional shadow puppets -- as their manipulators, in white, their heads swathed like beekeepers, somehow seem both invisible and intrinsic.)
Kandel originated the role of the narrator; over the years, her control and her range have only deepened. She is called upon to accomplish split-second transformations, from a puckish Peter to a grieving Mrs. Darling. (Her only vocal accompaniment is from the appealing singers -- Susan McKeown, Jay Ansill and Aidan Brennan -- at the edges of the stage.) The actress is especially impressive when her voices must seem to overlap, as when she portrays Neverland's argumentative Lost Boys all at once.
The eclectic puppet designs assist Kandel in imbuing the characters with personality. The Lost Boys, for instance, are all bare, calf-high wooden dolls that make their entrance as discarded toys in a chest. This riff on the improvised quality of child's play extends to many facets of the storytelling. When the Darling children fly off to Neverland, their bodies merely consist of bedclothes fluttering in the wind like kites. Tinker Bell is a pair of small gold discs that dangle from Kandel's finger, and the sails and bow of Captain Hook's ship, the Jolly Roger, rise from the floor as if drawn up on clotheslines.
Hook himself is the surest representation here of the melancholy tone that distinguishes "Peter and Wendy" from more saccharine evocations of the story. He's not just the pirate villain with the handlebar mustache. This Hook has psychological issues: an inferiority complex and a case of the blues so severe he'd be better served by kidnapping an analyst than an orphan. When at last he and little Peter clash in their fateful sword fight, he almost seems to welcome death.
Of course, the knowledge of death is always lurking somewhere in Barrie's story, and Wendy's growing into adulthood -- which Peter views as betrayal -- is what we all recognize as not the happiest of endings. Still, grown-ups can take comfort in the simple joys that can be bequeathed to the next generation -- of which "Peter and Wendy" is a supple example.