Peter and the Starcatcher Theatre Review – A Crazy “Star” Shoots Over Orange County

A group of mermaids, led by Matt McGrath (center) entertain

(Costa Mesa, CA) May, 2015 – Prequels have had a checkered history in the arts, especially in film and television. Prime negative examples include “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,”Prometheus,” the prequel to John Carpenter’s cult classic “The Thing” (who cares what happened at the Norwegian camp before Kurt Russell found its burned remains: They all died! And don’t let that prequel convince you otherwise!), and that horrible, soap-operatic take on the Batman mythology “Gotham.” And then there was “Star Wars Part 1-3;” the less said about that one, the better.

 

But there have been those rare moments where prequels do indeed add to the overall story. There was Sergio Leone’sThe Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” a western epic which---although released third in the Spaghetti Western trilogy---showed the origins of Clint Eastwood’s The Man with No Name. There was also Francis Coppola’sThe Godfather Part II,” which, albeit, incorporated the prequel within the sequel in incredibly flawless ways. And although “Hannibal Rising” was a critical and box office bomb in the Hannibal Lector film series, Brett Ratner’s “Red Dragon” proved to be more faithful to Thomas Harris’s text than Michael Mann’s retro-stylish “Manhunter.” In terms of theatre, the most successful prequel was Stephen Schwartz’s critical and box office rocket “Wicked,” which delved into the “Wizard of Oz” myth from the witches’ point of view before and during Dorothy’s arrival. It all comes down to the writing, and this can be said with Rick Elice and Wayne Barker’s “Peter and the Starcatcher” (based on the novel by Dave Berry and Ridley Pierson), which explores the origins of Peter Pan before he evolved into “the boy that never grows up.” The results? They basically turned the legend upside down in many insanely, hilarious ways, and the show won nine Tonys, including Best Play. It now makes its debut in Orange County. South Coast Repertory ends its 51st season with this family-friendly, slapstick theatrical treat.

  

Boy (Wyatt Fenner) listens to the Black Stache (Matt McGrath)

                                  

A group of actors walk onto a stage that is littered with scaffolding, ghost lights, hampers and wardrobe racks. After some idle chatter, they call upon the audience to imagine they have all been transported to the late 19th century, an age when Queen Victoria (“God save the Queen,” as all say throughout the show) reigned. And after conjuring such vivid imagery of the British Empire, the actors transform into various characters and the stage itself becomes an improvisational playground for them as they tell the story of how three orphans—Ted (Miles Fletcher), Prentiss (Paco Tolson) and Boy (Wyatt Fenner)—are being sold to the King of Rundoon and are being transported by way of the ship, The Neverland. At the same time, Lord Aster (a witty Allen Gilmore) and his daughter Molly (Gabrielle McClinton) are in charge of protecting a valuable treasure chest—filled with a magical cargo—as it goes to London. While Lord Aster and the chest travel on a faster ship, The Wasp, Molly rides on the Neverland, where she meets and falls in love with Boy. And when both ships go on their way, misunderstandings and slapstick scenarios come about, especially when the famed pirate Black Stache (Matt McGrath) highjacks The Wasp in order to seize the treasure, only to discover the magic cargo is on The Neverland. And when Black Stache tries to capture the other ship, double shipwrecks occur, resulting in all parties being marooned on a special island where Boy, who will soon be Peter Pan, will discover the true meaning of freedom and home.      

Prentiss, Molly, Boy and Ted (from l to r: Paco Tolson, Gabrielle McClinton, Wyatt Fenner and Allen Gilmore) are in danger of being eaten

What is brilliant about this play as a whole is Elice and Barker transform a popular legend into a witty farce by crafting the dialogue and action where it not only appeals to children ages 10 and up, but also to adults who understand and enjoy humorous, anachronistic, pop culture references, such as names of Italian dinners and cold cuts, Ayn Rand, Philip Glass, Michael Jackson, and especially the malapropisms that the Black Stache mutters throughout the story. And what adds to the text is Art Manke’s exuberant and expert direction in keeping the staging to the minimal and letting the actors utilize their fullest talents in creating the story, allowing the audience’s imagination to fill in the blanks…which is the whole basis of what Peter Pan was all about. And by doing so, this South Coast Repertory (SCR) production feels like a family-friendly ride into a Monty Python-like movie adaptation of the literary classic.  

Boy (Wyatt Fenner) charms Molly (Gabrielle McClinton)

And the outrageousness of this Monty Python style is very evident with the performers, especially McGrath’s Black Stache and Tony Abatemarco’s portrayal as Mrs. Bumbrake, Molly’s nanny. From the very moment that he walks on stage for the first time (vomiting from seasickness. So much for being a seasoned pirate!), McGrath steals every scene as a preening, effete pirate who has a bad habit of substituting incorrect words with words of a similar sound, resulting in many comical moments, especially with his first mate Smee (a hysterical Kasey Mahaffy). His Stache is reminiscent of a Michael Palin on speed, and when he loses his hand (thereby establishing the legend of Captain Hook), his reactions are so outrageous and unpredictable that some of his co-stars actually broke character and had to hide their faces in order to conceal their laughter from the audience. Although “Peter” is the story of Peter Pan’s origins, the Black Stache is the star of the show and McGrath grounds his character perfectly in clever, farcical craftsmanship. And Abatemarco’s nanny is very much like watching another Monty Python alumnus, Terry Jones, come to life with his falsetto voice and drag queen-like grace.

 

After appearing in some memorable supporting roles such as “The Whale” and “Rest,” it is a pleasure to see Wyatt Fenner in a lead role at SCR. His stage presence as Boy is quite solid and formidable with his naïve charm, his wounded anger as an orphan, and his mischievous nature as Peter Pan. It’s an endearing performance that is highlighted by the actor’s impeccable comic timing, which is perfectly matched by his co-star McClinton, whose chemistry with Fenner is a sweet and loving innocence which lights up the stage in a magical glow. McClinton also possesses a razor sharp wit that is ideal in cutting down her co-stars whenever they misbehave, especially McGrath’s Stache. She subtly transforms from a self-involved little ingénue whose heart melts into selfless love for Boy. The transformations from both leads are quite a sight to behold and it serves as a nice balance for McGrath’s wonderfully unbridled performance.

 

Peter and the Starcatcher” serves as a nice end to SCR’s 51st season, where the quality of the lineup actually surpasses that of the theater’s Golden Anniversary last year. And much kudos goes to Artistic Director Marc Masterson and Managing Director Paula Tomei for maintaining the highest level of excellence that South Coast Repertory symbolizes when it comes to the American theatre.

 

Peter A. Balaskas is a fiction writer, copyeditor, journalist and voice over artist.

Peter and the Starcatcher runs from May 8-June 7, 2015

South Coast Repertory: Segerstrom Stage

655 Town Center Drive

Costa Mesa, CA 92628-2197

Photos by Deborah Robinson

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