The new school of theater is all about old-school ingenuity, energy, and devising scenes without the crutches of fancy sets or special effects. Peter and the Starcatcher, the Tony Award-winning play based on the Disney-commissioned Peter Pan prequel novel, is aggressively of this new school. Through the use of old-fashioned props, recycled costumes, sound effects, tightly timed choreography, and clever staging, it's a wickedly entertaining piece of theater, and one of the most unique we've seen in years.
The touring company of the show just arrived in S.F. this week at the Curran Theatre, and they're putting on a show that's absolutely at Broadway standards and it has to be. Given how much this play demands of its performers, who not only serve as actors and chorus but often as the set itself, any flaws in the casting or dips in the energy would be obvious. We suggest that you go into this show blind, and skip over the next three paragraphs of plot business, but if you insist on knowing such things, feel free to read on.
Peter and the Starcatcher tells the complex tale of a young girl, Molly Aster (played with great, witty aplomb by Megan Stern), taken along on an adventure by her seafaring father, Lord Aster (Nathan Hosner), to an island where they must locate and protect a trunk full of supposed treasure belonging to Queen Victoria. ("God save her," becomes a repeated joke-mantra throughout the play.) The obnoxiously precocious Molly meets three orphan boys aboard the ship they're on, one of whom doesn't have a name and gets called Boy (played by the charming and eminently watchable Joey deBettencourt), and she takes them on as her charges. They encounter pirates, notably one in particular known as Black Stache (played with terrific scene-chewing bravado by John Sanders, who also played the role on Broadway), and after a hilarious and unfortunate accident in Act 2 that severs an appendage, you can guess whom this villainous pirate character morphs into.
The script by Rick Elice, based on the novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, is a jocular, at times burlesque, Vaudevillian onslaught of British humor, faux-earnest children's-story language, and cheeky anachronistic references, and can at times be too much of a good thing. But enough can't be said about the inventive scenic design by Donyale Werle and recycled-object costumes by Paloma Young, both of whom took home Tonys for their work.
There is a shipwreck, an encounter with natives, a gigantic alligator, and all that you might expect from this story, and all of it is told at a near breakneck pace that leaves the audience almost (almost) as breathless as the constantly moving actors. And did we mention there's music? There are four musical numbers and a few incidental songs that add texture and humor and further show off the performers' talents. The nameless orphan, of course, eventually gets a name: Peter Pan. Molly eventually grows up a bit. And all the characters touch some of the magic that's called "star stuff," which will ultimately be the key to Peter becoming the flying boy who never grew up.
In between is the astonishing feat of a dozen talented performers, all male except for Molly, playing over 100 different characters and creating theater from scratch at every beat. One example: In the first act, aboard the The Wasp, Molly goes exploring below deck and opening random doors, which are created across the back of the stage by the backs of ten men. As each door creaks open, the men break from their wall of doors to display what's happening inside the room she sees, from a raucous gambling den to a half dozen men singing hymns in a ship chapel. Another example: The famous alligator comes into being here just as two rows of white triangular flags as teeth, and two red-lit bowls as eyes, operated by four actors. It is possibly the most exhaustive array of guerrilla theater technique that we've ever seen in the course of two-plus hours, and is at times almost exhausting to watch but not so exhausting that isn't a lot of fun. Because to see people so hard at work to make you laugh, to set a scene, and to create moments of delight on the live stage, is never a dull thing to watch. But yes, we did walk out of there kind of dazed.
Peter and the Starcatcher plays through December 1. Get tickets here.