You remember Tiger Lily, don’t you? The indigenous denizen of Neverland on a quest to reclaim the tribal rights to her ancestors’ imaginary lands? Or Wendy Darling, the English teenager at odds with a conventional mother who can’t fathom her daughter’s dreams of a career in science? Or Tinkerbell, a sassy alpha sprite who in a burst of feminist solidarity entreats her sisters to a call for girl power?
No? Well, then, allow me to introduce you to the wokest “Peter Pan” ever. Or rather, “Peter Pan and Wendy,” Shakespeare Theatre Company’s sweet and saucy world premiere of Lauren Gunderson’s adaptation of J.M. Barrie’s story about the boy who wouldn’t grow up.
With the help of director Alan Paul and a design team that knows a thing or two about dreamscapes and magical domains, Gunderson has rewritten the familiar script to make it clear that girls do want to grow up — to follow their hearts and maybe even win a Nobel Prize or two. Just like Marie Curie, who earned them for physics and chemistry and is the hero of this particular Wendy, played with a winning perspicacity by Sinclair Daniel.
There was always something a little weird about Barrie’s cloying depiction of Wendy as the object of the Lost Boys’ maternal longings. In this wittily contemporary rendition of Neverland, where Peter (Justin Mark) is less stridently boastful than usual and Captain Hook (Derek Smith) preens like a Bluebeard Liberace, Wendy entertains no wish to mother the assorted little rascals of the realm. She’s no helpless damsel in distress either, which will be a relief to parents who bring their daughters to Sidney Harman Hall hoping they’ll see women able to fend for themselves.
It’s the initial image of Paul’s production — outfitted with the child’s-eye delights of Jason Sherwood’s sets, Loren Shaw’s costumes and James Ortiz’s giant crocodile puppet — that sets the evening’s beguiling tone: Wendy is sitting at a window in the bedroom she shares with her brothers (Christopher Flaim and Chauncey Chestnut), peering through a telescope at the heavens. Neverland may be out there somewhere, but Wendy’s mind is on more serious celestial matters. They’re the beyond-the-horizon fascinations of a born astronomer.
You won’t feel sledgehammered by Gunderson’s overhaul of the text: Her adaptation hews enough to the plot to satisfactorily honor the original and still support some of her own playfulness. To wit, the relationship between a simpering Smee (Tom Story) and Smith’s dandy dandy of a Hook offers the suggestion of extremely close friendship: Think Roger DeBris and Carmen Ghia in “The Producers.” (And wait for the funny moment when Smee opens a trunk to equip the self-regarding Hook with his choice of personalized handless-pirate prosthetics.)
The fun of this charming “Peter Pan” is in the impressive level of invention and devising of illusion. The speed-of-light travels of Tinkerbell (Jenni Barber) are cleverly illuminated courtesy of the lighting and special effects designers, Isabella Byrd and Jeremy Chernick. And that Hook-menacing croc with the astonishing dentistry that Ortiz has created is a divine creature out of a pop-up storybook. A few caveats: Although nothing much can be done about the highly visible cables suspending Peter and the Darlings in midair, someone might want to adjust the backdrop and set pieces so we don’t see Hook and Smee crawling into the wings after they’re supposed to have been made the crocodile’s lunch. And might the younger actors attempting London accents not rush through their lines quite so rapidly? We lose a good 50 percent of what some of them are saying.
Some other production facets of note, brought more securely to enjoyable dramatic life: Barber in gilded, electrified fairy costume and doing her best impression of Megan Mullally of “Will and Grace” fame; Gregory Wooddell, Michael Glenn and Calvin McCullough, as the inept shipmates in need of some in-service pirate training; and as Nana, the pet dog the Darling parents (Smith and Barber again) engage as caregiver, the irresistible labradoodle, Bailey. The best Nana ever, paws down.
Mark’s Peter is engagingly agile, especially in the air, under flying sequence specialist Paul Rubin’s instruction, but there is little dimensionality to his character. That he is in a continual struggle with his uncooperative shadow seems apt, as this Peter seems himself something of a character in outline only. Tiger Lily (the appealingly assertive Isabella Star LaBlanc), inhabiting a role in this version as a spokesperson for oppressed native peoples, seems to interest the playwright more than Peter does.
Which is completely okay, because Peter has had a century of “Peter Pans” by which to hog the spotlight, and, as tends to be the rule for characters who refuse to age, he’ll be around to showboat for a long time to come. It’s lovely to see Wendy as the most important character in the story this time — and to know that she’s going to make a fantastic grown-up.
Peter Pan and Wendy, by J.M. Barrie, adapted by Lauren Gunderson. Directed by Alan Paul. Music, Jenny Giering; sound, John Gromada; projections, Jared Mezzocchi; fight direction, David Leong; choreography, Katie Spelman. With Darren Alford, Tendo Nsubuga, Francisco González, Ronen Lewis and Joriah Kwame. About 2 hours. $35-$120. Through Jan. 12 at Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F St. NW. 202-547-1122. shakespearetheatre.org.