The spoiler is real. – XOXO Miss Jaye
I knew that Dave Barry had written a children’s book (or maybe a series? I’m not sure) about Peter Pan, but I never really sought it out. I enjoy Dave Barry in a sort of passive way – if something shows up in a time and place that’s convenient, I’ll peruse it and maybe get a couple of laughs. I mostly associate him with a sewage treatment facility here in Grand Forks (even the details of that are somewhat foggy) and some humorous pieces that made the rounds on my high school speech team. He’s been a solid, family-friendly presence for a long time that I was always aware of but never particularly engaged in. So when I saw that ETC was putting on Peter & the Starcatcher as the 4th show in their 2016-17 season, I wasn’t sure what to expect and I attended more because of the cast (the show features longtime friend Nikki Quam and two of my former Hairpsray castmates, Nicque Robinson-Dela Cruz and Hyrum Patterson) than any deep love and appreciation of the source material.
The quick version is that this show sets up a foundation for the classic story of Peter Pan – who is he and where did he come from? Why can he fly? How did he end up being relentlessly pursued by Captain Hook? All of these questions are a huge part of the story, but for this show our lens is more firmly focused in on Molly (Bethany Springs): a young British girl whose father Lord Aster (Tim McCoy) is a “Starcatcher,” a rather loosely defined group of individuals who find and protect “star stuff” and because of it have some rather remarkable abilities. Molly and her father are both travelling to the mysterious island of Rundoon aboard separate ships: he aboard the speeding frigate the Wasp and she aboard the decrepit Neverland, which also happens to be carrying three orphans – Ted (Lauren Sanner), Prentiss (Taylor Jung), and the nameless youth who is destined to become the hero of another story (Karter Dolan). Both ships are carrying large trunks, one filled with a mysterious treasure and the other, a decoy, with useless sand. The Wasp is soon beset by pirates led by the preening Blake Stache (Nicque Robinson-Dela Cruz) and his hapless helper Smee (Justin Dela Cruz). Stache and his men quickly subdue Aster and the ship’s Captain Scott (Hyrum Patterson) but find that their treasure has been secretly switched to the hold of the Neverland by the devious Slank (Mackenzie Teepen) and his affable first mate Alf (Maddie Sharpe). Molly and her nanny Betty Bumbrake (Nicole Quam) find out about switch when they witness a cat flying below decks and become the ad hoc guardians of the “star stuff” along with the three orphans. The ships head to inevitable confrontation everyone on board ending up on the shores of Rundoon for the second act.
After intermission, more of the pieces from the classic Peter Pan tale start to fall into place and we learn what role the “star stuff” plays in shaping the narrative. The island is inhabited by a native tribe, the Mollusks, lead by Fighting Prawn (Misti Koop, who earlier played the villainous Grempkin who sold the orphans to become “snake food”) and his son Hawking Clam (Teepen). This is where things could have gotten really inappropriate – after all, Peter Pan has long been criticized for its portrayal of the “savages” and this show attempts to stay true to the narrative elements of the original without repeating some of the same mistakes. In this case, Fighting Prawn is revealed to have been a former kitchen slave in England who is fluent in several languages; the “tribal chants” of the Mollusks are actually names of different Italian dishes the king prepared during his servitude: canolli, lasagna, rotini, etc. It’s a clever play that negates most (if not all) of the negative association with stereotypical savages from the original tale.
Here’s where we get the most “spoiler-y,” so go ahead and skip the next couple of italicized paragraphs if you don’t want to know how it all ends:
The “star stuff” (fragments of a meteorite, one supposes, though the text never completely pins it down) becomes an easy way to set up all of the characters doe where they’ll need to be to properly serve as a prequel to Peter Pan: Peter gains the ability to fly as well as his wish (to not grow up “for a while”), an overly attentive bird is transformed into Tinkerbell, and even the alligator with the ticking clock in its belly (in this case, a kitchen timer gifted from Fighting Prawn). Stache manages to sever a hand in the lid of the trunk, and names himself “a true villain” by taking on Peter as his eternal adversary. And Molly serves as a reminder of the pain of growing up: she leaves Peter to his island home (which he renames Neverland after the doomed vessel he traveled there aboard) and his eternal youth; later, she gives birth to a daughter named – yep, you guessed it – Wendy.
And this is perhaps what is most disappointing about this show: Molly is easily the most interesting characters of the bunch, including brooding Peter, and in the end she exists only to occasion the rise of the male “hero” and to contribute a sort of innocent love interest to the story in the form of Wendy Darling. There’s a small aside about how she grows up to be a starcatcher like her father and have some adventures, but the only one that matters, for the purposes of the show, is to become a mother. It’s reductive and disappointing to see such an interesting addition to the mythos be pushed aside quite so easily.
But like any “bad feminist,” I can critique the problematic elements of a piece while still enjoying the pleasures it has to offer, and there is definitely a lot of fun to be had with this show. The cast is clearly enjoying themselves and they play up the campier elements of the characters in a way that I find beguiling. Robinson-Dela Cruz and her husband are the standout performers for me; Stache is the perfect sort of foppish villain that Disney has made famous, and she pulls out all the stops from facial contortions to milking the punny dialogue, and more than a dash of slapstick. It’s just over the top enough to play. Dela Cruz’s Smee is a perfect complement to the supposedly menacing pirate: he’s the ultimate fool in that he’s equal parts Dopey the dwarf while also being sort of the brains of the operation, covertly coming up with all of Stache’s best ideas. The two play well together and their scenes together are definitely some of the best.
I also very much enjoyed Springs’ Molly, who is so British and uptight and determined not to be the foil for some boy (though in the end, the narrative gets the better of her). She has good chemistry with Dolan’s Peter, and his scenes with her have a certain crackle that is missing from some of his solo efforts. And Jessica Hunold, who plays several parts in the ensemble, gives some great moments as Sanchez, the pirate whose name Stache just cannot seem to remember. The entire cast, under the direction of Stephanie Murry, provided excellent performances, and more importantly they worked together really well as an ensemble. Though I wouldn’t really describe the show as a musical in the traditional sense, there are a few songs and more than a few musical moments, and these blended seamlessly into show under Maddie Sharpe’s musical direction. The actors aren’t miked, and this does occasionally cause some problems hearing all of the overlapping lines of music and dialogue, but overall it’s not a huge detriment. The stage design, constructed by Empire staple Pat Garry, was simple and yet beautifully adaptable to the various locales and Amy Sanner’s costume designs hit all the right notes, creating a consistent, attractive tableau. The technical staff is rounded out by stage manager CJ Leigh, who also co-designed the lighting with Cedar Remmen, and musicians Maxwell Pickett and Ryan Soleim who played piano and percussion, respectively.
There are two opportunities left for you to see this show: tonight, March 17, and tomorrow, March 18. Tickets are $22, with discounts available to students and senior citizens. I highly recommend that you check out this deceptively intricate little comedy and partake in the campy antics (and more than a few subtle innuendos!) that this show has to offer. Although it doesn’t really do much to make me a bigger fan of the source material, I’m a huge fan of the quality theatre being produced by the Empire Theatre Company.
Tags: Amy Sanner, Barrie, Bethany Springs, Captain Hook, Cedar Remmen, Champagne Dreams Productions, Chris Berg, CJ Leigh, community theatre, Disney, Disney's Peter Pan, drag art, drag king, drag performance, drag queen, drag show, drag troupe, Empire Arts Center, Empire Theater, Empire Theatre, Empire Theatre Company, H M Barrie, Hyrum Patterson, Janessa, Janessa J Champagne, Janessa Jaye, Janessa Jaye Champagne, Jessica Hunold, Justin Dela Cruz, Karter Dolan, Lauren Sanner, Lord Aster, Mackenzie Teepen, Maddie Sharpe, Maxwell Pickett, Miss Jaye, Misti Koop, Molly Aster, Neverland, Nicole Quam, Nicque Robinson-Dela Cruz, Nikki Quam, Pat Garry, Peter and the Starcatcher, Peter Pan, Ryan Soleim, Stephanie Murry, Taylor Jung, Tim McCoy, Tinkerbell, Walt Disney, Wendy Darling, World of Champagne