Who: The Kitchen Theatre Company
Where: 417 W. State St. Ithaca, New York 14850
When: January 31 – February 21, 2016
“Everything ends, and so our story begins.”
These final words of the prologue of “Peter and the Starcatcher,” now running at Ithaca’s Kitchen Theatre Company through Feb. 21, marks the end of dated fairy tales and welcomes socially conscious storytelling that proves even modern ideals can be magical.
This high-energy production of Rick Elice’s ensemble-driven prequel to J.M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan” is expertly directed by Rachel Lampert and Sara Lampert Hoover. Based on “Peter and the Starcatchers” by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, the play premiered on Broadway in 2012 and earned five Tony Awards. It is now being produced by regional and community theatres across the country — and it isn’t hard to see why.
“Peter and the Starcatcher” is the modern answer to “Peter Pan,” which inspired both film and theatrical spinoffs. While it preserves J.M. Barrie’s most cherished elements, including youthfulness, belief in magic and playful humor, it has eliminated the racist and sexist stereotypes that detract from the tale’s good intentions.
The energetic Emily Jackson leads the 12-person cast as Molly Aster, a young girl in pursuit of adventure. Aster joins her father (Craig MacDonald) on one of his missions, but when his ship is hijacked by a band of pirates, led by the Black Stache (Karl Gregory), it is up to Molly and her new friend, Peter (Matthew Bretschneider), to save her father and the magical treasure chests on his ship.
Jackson stands out not only because she is the only girl in the troupe, but because she skillfully balances strength and exuberance with tenderness and sympathy. Jackson gives Molly a toughness that is seldom seen in female characters in children’s tales. (“We girls can’t afford to be sentimental. We have to be strong,” she tells a group of orphaned boys.) She is Wendy Darling — if she grew up in an age where women can earn a living for their family and even run for president.
In addition, “Peter Pan’s” now infamous racial stereotypes are not only eliminated, but satirized. Tiger Lilly and her native warriors are now a group of “mollusks,” cartoon-like Italians who don’t take kindly to visitors. One line speaks to problems not only in children’s books but in modern day society: “We can do all the stuff you don’t want to do anymore. We’re foreigners, that’s what we’re for.”
Gregory’s skillful comedic timing is a new take on the Black Stache who, when we first meet him, is Captain Hook pre-hook. He is dim-witted and hardly intimidating, but has an energy and limberness that brings a new dimension to Hook. Also, Bretschneider puts a sadness in Peter, adding great depth to a character who can easily be seen as stubborn and immature.
Each actor plays several roles, taking turns at narration, and playing leading as well as secondary roles. The action moves very fast and requires high energy from the cast and intelligence from the audience. It is a play that expects a lot of its audience, asking it to believe that umbrellas can be trees and Wegman’s shopping bags can be used as shields in battle.
David L. Arsenault’s scenic design, lit by Tyler M. Perry, transforms the Kitchen’s small black-box into a ship. The ship’s bows extend over the audience’s head, enveloping nearly the entire theatre. Above this, tucked in a catwalk amidst the lighting equipment, is a three member band. In addition to providing Wayne Barker’s music, the band serves as a sort of folly table, providing live sound effects including door creaks, ticking clocks and thunder crashes.
The cast is clothed in costumes by Amanda Aiken, with a neutral base that allows other costume pieces to be added so the actors can quickly transform from one character to the next. Similarly, common household objects are used as props, designed by Elizabeth Frino, requiring a small leap of the imagination from the audience.
While updated and more relevant than the original, “Peter and the Starcatcher” has one thing in common with “Peter Pan:” imagination. “Peter and the Starcatcher” does not rely on flashy scenery or expensive props, but simply asks spectators to have an imagination. So, it wasn’t a surprise that when Black Stache asked the audience to “clap if you believe,” the audience clapped.