If you need something to lift the spirits in this dark season, definitely consider “Peter Pan and Wendy,” a buoyant and sparkling new reimagining of J.M. Barrie’s classic tale adapted by Lauren Gunderson, now in its world premiere at the Shakespeare Theatre Co. Gunderson’s earnest translation of the original creates an imaginative playground that all audience members, of all ages, can enjoy.
Based on J.M. Barrie’s original story of the boy who never grew up, staged for the first time in 1904 and later novelized, Gunderson’s adaptation turns inside out and upside down the world of Neverland, retaining the story’s pure whimsy and charm, while confronting its racism, colonialism, and sexism. As in the Barrie play, we open on a perfectly charming nursery, and Wendy Darling (Sinclair Daniel), a young girl. In the original, Wendy is first seen playing at being a mother, caring for an imaginary baby. Here, Gunderson gives her a telescope, and an interest in becoming the peer of Marie Curie.
Wendy’s desire to become a scientist is somewhat dampened by her kind, but conventional, mother who wishes to send her to finishing school to become a lady. Gunderson’s characteristic quick banter nicely frames this opening domestic scene, and is infused with wry humor that persists throughout the production. “Why would anyone want a school that finishes their children?” Wendy wonders aloud, in no hurry to become what she sees as a boring adult.
Put to bed with her brothers John (Christopher Flaim) and Michael (Chauncey Chestnut), the nursery is soon visited by the magical Peter Pan (Justin Mark), chasing his escaped shadow (realized by Jared Mezzocchi’s playful projections). Their antics awaken Wendy, who practically assesses the situation and comes to his aid. Like Wendy, Peter is in no rush to grow up, and can refuse to do so by living in the timeless world of Neverland – having been separated from his family at a young age, and either unwilling or unable to return, he now pals around with another group of quasi-orphans called the Lost Boys. Soon, he convinces Wendy to bring her brothers with him to Neverland, so that she can share the stories he’s been eavesdropping on outside the nursery window.
… a buoyant and sparkling new reimagining of J.M. Barrie’s classic tale.
The shows themes are heartfelt, but not simplistic. Arriving in Neverland we meet Tiger Lily (Isabella Star LaBlanc), a person native to Neverland, whose people have been displaced due to Peter’s nemesis, Captain Hook, a perfectly coiffed Derek Smith who swashbuckles with flare. Isabella Star LaBlanc turns in a stellar performance as the tough and far-sighted Tiger Lily. LaBlanc, who is Sisseton Wahpeton Dakota, plays the character as a truth-teller, making colonial realities visible to those around her. Those realities become even more complicated as Peter’s own complicity in Neverland’s fate is called into question.
The production is part of new artistic director Simon Godwin’s initiative to include more family-oriented programming around the holidays. This show fits that bill, combining complex themes and fast humor with delightful spectacle. An early scene of Peter giving the children a flying lesson will charm viewers of all ages. Jason Sherwood’s gorgeous Neverland sets delight the eye, especially the Lost Boys’ hideout, a huge pile of toys (complete with a Nutcracker, a nod to another iconic holiday show). Did I mention there’s a real dog?
Sinclair Daniel as Wendy, is one of the many great performances. Daniel perfectly captures the character’s self-possession and confidence, and her clarity nicely contrasts with Peter’s whimsy, embodied in a charismatic performance by Justin Mark. Supporting performances include the bureaucratic pirate Smee (a reliably hilarious Tom Story), and the slightly acerbic Jenni Barber as Tinkerbell, outfitted in an iridescent, metallic fairy costume (courtesy of Loren Shaw).
After the battle is done, the story floats towards a happy conclusion, with everyone the wiser. Childhood does have to come to an end, but shows like this demonstrate that imagination and creativity never should.
Advisory: Recommended for audience 5 years and over.
Running time: About 2 hours and 10 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.
“Peter Pan and Wendy” runs through Jan. 12 at the Shakespeare Theatre Co. For tickets or more information, click here.