Anyone who adores the sight of Mary Martin flying around on visible wires may never have imagined that J.M. Barrie's "Peter Pan" needed to or even could be rescued from the high-energy, 1950s Broadway version captured on videotape. An extremely beautiful adaptation by New York's Mabou Mines, which opened at the Geffen Playhouse on Thursday, will be a revelation even to those completely untouched by "I Gotta Crow." As unlikely as it sounds, this Celtic music-flavored postmodern puppet show called "Peter and Wendy" touches notes far deeper, more melancholy and bittersweet.
"Peter and Wendy" features Julie Archer's enchanting puppets and--Bunraku style--the puppet handlers themselves, veiled in the off-white favored by Barrie's turn-of-the-century characters instead of the traditional Japanese black. At various times, a single puppet may be handled by one or up to five handlers as it flies, fights or listens with poetic verisimilitude. Among others things, this is a lovely pop-up picture book come to life.
The star of the evening is not the tousle-haired puppet who plays Peter, but the wonderfully fluid human being named Karen Kandel. Her cropped hair and handsome, intelligent face serve as guidepost and anchor in this wide-ranging adventure story. Kandel is narrator, enacts some of the roles and supplies all of the voices for 25 characters. In fact, her performance is nothing less than an aural tour de force. In one scene, she provides the narration and the sounds of Peter speaking gruffly and Wendy's quiet crying, all seemingly at once. Perhaps the most marvelous aspect of this production, adapted by Liza Lorwin and directed by Lee Breuer, is that a viewer can wonder at the theatrical technique and still be immersed in the story.
Each puppet has a distinct personality and each one is distinctly delightful. Captain Hook is elegant--a cross between Yul Brenner and Count Dracula, with good cheek bones, a chalk white face and black eyebrows that jump around, animating an evil, mysterious half-smile. Hook's assistant Smee, in this case an accordian-playing Jamaican, can be a free-standing small puppet or a small, wooden face strapped to the forehead of a puppeteer. Nana, the dog who serves as nanny to the Darling children, is made up from a shaggy mop of brown fabric and shiny, dark eyes. Later, when the crocodile that is Hook's nemesis arrives, the puppeteers strap a sharp-jawed snout onto Nana so that she looks like a 3-D fantasy from the mind of William Wegman.
Where "Peter Pan" is essentially a celebration of those who maintain a child-like wonder, "Peter and Wendy" plumbs deeply into Barrie's darker themes--including, but going past, the essential one of keeping childhood in a grown-up heart. Thanks in part to the delicate score by Johnny Cunningham and Susan McKeown's exquisite folk singing, the show is a melancholy ache for lost childhood, an elegy for both those who lose their wonder and for those who fail to grow up as well.
Toward the end--after the adventures of the Darling children have concluded, after flying to Neverland and adopting the Lost Boys and battling pirates and rescuing Tiger Lily--"Peter and Wendy" slows down to reveal its bittersweet heart. Kandel narrates a shadow-puppet show as she tells of what happened to the children, Wendy, John and Michael. She allows a tremor into her voice when she delivers the devastating news that childhood did indeed end forever for some of these children we have grown to love.
Archer, who designed the fantastic set as well as the lights and the puppets, makes seamless transitions from the Darling nursery to the adventures on high. Hook's pirate-ship sails are also linens from the children's beds hung up to dry. The plank on which the Lost Boys are made to walk doubles as the Darlings' ironing board.
"Peter and Wendy" is a perfect introduction to the theater for children; it unmasks theatrical tricks while still being magical. It is much, much more than a great excuse to skip all the usual holiday shows, every last singing Scrooge and sappy Santa and dysfunctional family memoir. But it has that going for it as well.
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* "Peter and Wendy," Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood, Tue.-Thur., 7:30 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 2 p.m. Also Dec. 24, 2 p.m.; dark Dec. 25. Ends Dec. 28. $17.50-$37.50. (310) 208-5454. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.
Karen Kandel: Narrator
Basil Twist with Sarah Provost, Sam Hack: Peter
Jane Catherine Shaw with Jenny Subjack,
Lute Ramblin': Hook
Sam Hack with Jane Catherine Shaw, Jessica Smith,
Sarah Provost, Jenny Subjack: Nana
Jane Catherine Shaw with Jenny Subjack,
Jessica Smith: Jane
Sarah Provost with Jessica Smith: Smee
Jane Catherine ShawPeter's Shadow
Jessica Smith: The Neverbird
Puppeteer ensemble: Lost Boys, Shadow Puppets,
John, Michael, Others
The Geffen Playhouse presents a Mabou Mines production. From the novel by J.M. Barrie. Adapted and produced by Liza Lorwin. Directed by Lee Breuer. Set, lighting by Julie Archer. Puppet design by Julie Archer with Walter Stark, Stephen Kaplin, Basil Twist, Jane Catherine Shaw. Music composed, arranged and directed by Johnny Cunningham. Lyrics by Johnny Cunningham and also by J.M. Barrie, Liza Lorwin, Lee Breuer. Costumes Sally Thomas. Sound Edward Cosla. Puppetry direction Jane Catherine Shaw, Basil Twist. Fight direction B.H. Barry. Film Andrew Moore. Production stage manager Jody Kuh.