More than a century has elapsed since Scottish playwright and novelist J.M. Barrie introduced Peter Pan to the world, but the story of the little boy who stays young forever has lost none of its power or appeal. Peter and the Starcatcher, a new American play by Rick Elice which starts performances March 28 at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, is a prequel to that story. “Peter Pan is the star, of course, but our play talks about how he became the boy who lives alone on an island,” says Roger Rees. He is a co-director of the production, which arrives on Broadway following a critically acclaimed sold-out run at Off-Broadway’s New York Theatre Workshop last spring. Barrie’s beloved imp “belongs to everyone,” Rees continues. “People like to come to see how Peter Pan is re-explained or re-examined. And then again, being a boy forever is something we all, even girls, wish to be.”
Rees, a Welsh-born actor and director best known for his 1982 Tony Award-winning lead performance in The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, and for his recurring television appearances in “Cheers” and “The West Wing,” shares directing duties on Peter and the Starcatcher with Alex Timbers, a Drama Desk and OBIE award-winner who was represented on Broadway last season with Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and The Pee-wee Herman Show. The two men began their collaboration nearly six years ago at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts, where Rees was artistic director at the time. At first glance they might seem an odd couple. Rees, who began his career as an actor with the Royal Shakespeare Company has a classical repertory background, while Timbers, who’s in his mid-thirties and is a full three decades younger than Rees, honed his skills as director and writer running his own scrappy, experimental off-off Broadway theater company. “We both know very different things and we love similar things; it’s a jolly time,” says Rees. “We share the same taste, which I think is the key,” says Timbers. “There’s not really any separation in terms of who works with the actors or who works with the designers, the staging; I’d say it’s pretty seamless. We’ve now become really close friends too.”
The source material for Peter and the Starcatcher is a popular children’s novel by David Barry and Ridley Pearson, published in 2004, a hundred years after Barrie introduced his character in a 1904 West End play, Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Would Not Grow Up. The book was originally optioned for an animated movie by Disney, but when that didn’t materialize the project landed with Rees and Timbers. “We began with a staging rather a script — just a series of ideas for scenes,” Timbers explains. “In the second version, Rick Elice [Tony nominee for co-writing the book of Jersey Boys] came on as the playwright and inspired a whole new set of scenes.” They premiered the play at San Diego’s La Jolla Playhouse in 2009 and followed that with the Off-Broadway production last year. “We tried not to lose any of the imagination and allow it to continue to be a show that really appeals to all ages, but to also push for a more muscular and gritty approach,” Timbers explains.
The story of Peter and the Starcatcher is a fantastical, epic adventure that unfolds initially on the high seas aboard a ship that is menaced by pirates and continues on a remote island, home to hostile natives and weird creatures. To realize their rollicking yarn, Timbers and Rees draw from an era of stagecraft and design that predates computerized special effects and video projection. Timbers calls it “rough magic,” borrowing the term from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. “We knew that no amount of money could actually give you the kind of scenery and flying we wanted to achieve,” says Timbers. “So we decided instead to rely on the audiences’ imagination and limit ourselves as severely as possible to just a few pieces of wood, a couple of trunks, a bucket and rope. You can see every tool we are using and yet at the same time it can provoke you to a world of absolute magic and enchantment.”
Aiming for what Rees calls a “corporate” experience, the co-directors assembled a company of twelve highly versatile actors who perform not just all the roles in the play, but who also double up as extras, become the scenery, sing the occasional song and create the sound effects as well. “A lead actor can also be a door or a native in the next scene,” Timbers explains. “When Molly [the 13-year-old girl who befriends Peter] is crawling through the bowels of the ship and you hear all the water drips – that’s all being done entirely onstage by the actors.” Rees adds, “You need wise, clever, young, silly and serious actors to do this sort of thing. They are glorious. I wish I was as good as they are.”
“What is interesting, I think, is that this show actually dares to say it might not be so great to be Peter Pan after all,” notes Timbers. “There might be a point in your life when you should, you know, grow up,” concurs Rees. “It’s an affecting tale, poignant and funny,” he adds. “I’m very pleased that more people are going to be able to see it on Broadway, and especially that it appeals to people who are moving up to their twenties.” Referring back to the primary source for the story, Rees recalls a moment in the Barrie play when Mrs. Darling says she thinks she saw a face in the window and fears that her children are in danger. “The nursery is three stories up and it is, of course, Peter Pan looking in,” he says. “But Peter Pan always looks in; he’s never part of the family.”
By Gerard Raymond
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