|Phillip J. Berns and Kayla Kelly as Peter and Wendy. Photo by Casey Campbell.|
Bag & Baggage ends its 2018-2019 with a surprisingly beautiful and moving production of playwright Jeremy Bloom’s Peter/Wendy. This stripped-down adaptation retains the key characters and plot points, and much of the language, of J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan – but distills the essence of the original to expose traces of Barrie’s complex and troubled mind. As someone more familiar with the staged musical and Disney movie, I was enchanted and intrigued by this new perspective on a story I thought I knew. Director Cassie Greer has assembled a superb group of actors (all adults, which is particularly appropriate since this version is by no means a children’s story), and the staging is always inventive and frequently magical.
The story is told by the seven cast members who portray Peter, Wendy, Tinker Bell, Hook, Smee, Mr. and Mrs. Darling, Tiger Lily, a Lost Boy and a Mermaid. Eliminating little brothers Michael and John and other peripheral characters allows the story to focus intensely on a few key relationships and themes, and to allow the audience to view them in greater depth. Of course, the key relationship is the one between Peter and Wendy (hence, the title Peter/Wendy). However, Bloom’s script and Greer’s direction also shine an interesting light on Tinker Bell/Peter, subtly explore Peter/The Tiger Lily as failed seduction, put a fine note of panic into Wendy’s inability to reconnect with Mrs. Darling, present Mr. and Mrs. Darling as a real couple, and we connect with the one Lost Boy’s longing to be part of a real family. Above all, the audience feels the tragedy of Peter’s (Barrie’s) alienation from conventional reality – in this show, his refusal to grow up is so much more than a childish longing to have fun and fight play battles in a fantasy world.
Phillip J. Berns is simply riveting as Peter Pan. He leaps around the stage with admirable agility, but even more impressive is his parallel ability to switch his emotional state instantaneously. Any time he ventures too close to reality, he leaps back and reframes his mood to hold the world at arm’s length. However, watch and listen closely and you’ll get glimpses of Peter’s inner pain – the subtle longing in his voice when he says “To die will be an awfully big adventure” is absolutely heartbreaking. Kayla Kelly creates an equally memorable Wendy – thoroughly wide-eyed, virginal and innocent, playful and adventurous, yet clearly destined for the mommy track and life as a functional adult.
Jeremy Sloan is often hilarious as he flits and glimmers through the role of Tinker Bell, but there is real menace in the ferocity of his reaction whenever Wendy or The Tiger Lily get too close to Peter. Kymberli Colbourne (Mrs. Darling/Hook) and Justin Charles (Mr. Darling/Smee) do versatile double duty and combine sometimes cartoonish moments and dialogue with sincere touches – I was especially moved by Colbourne’s intense and believable grief in her last scene as Mrs. Darling. In their comparatively small roles, both Cambria Herrera (The Tiger Lily) and Jacquelle Davis (A Lost Boy) also illuminate key themes. Herrera’s colorful performance captures her character’s connection with the natural world – she is essentially a flower, and her enthusiastic sensuality adds a special dimension to the tale. Davis treads the fine line between Neverland’s world of fantasy and the real world of London – her ability to move emotionally between both worlds illuminates the tragic elements of life as an unwanted child.
Greer and her production team fully exploit the unique technological and spatial features of The Vault, using lighting and projection to support Jim Ricks-White’s scenic design. Four gigantic sheets flow smoothly, transforming the space from a cloaked room to a giant and inclusive tent that draws the audience into the fantasy, then forming massive sails and ultimately providing the backdrop for projections of a night sky that dwarfs the world below.
Peter/Wendy is not the comfortable, fun version of J. M. Barrie’s classic that audiences usually expect, nor are the themes easily accessed – audiences will leave the theater pondering what they have seen, and will find their minds returning to the show for days. The show is relatively short and delivers fine entertainment for two hours, but its impact lingers and offers insights well after the stage goes dark.
Bag&Baggage’s Peter/Wendy is playing at The Vault, 350 E. Main Street, Hillsboro, through May 19th, with 7:30 p.m. performances Thursday, Friday, and Saturday and 2:00 p.m. Sunday matinees.