Backyard Dreaming: Penny Seats' "Peter and the Starcatcher"
Rarely has an Ann Arbor stage been so uniquely suited to a play as West Park is to Peter and the Starcatcher, Rick Elice’s Tony-winning prequel to Peter Pan, based on the novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson.
West Park, which serves as the summer home of The Penny Seats Theatre Company, is versatile and adaptable to a wide variety of theatrical experiences. When I saw Peter and the Starcatcher last weekend, a friend turned to me at intermission and said, “This set looks like it would if I were a kid playing pirates and make-believe out in my backyard.” And it does. Many of the imaginatively used props consist of mismatched, cobbled-together items like grocery shopping carts, kitchen timers, a plastic pineapple, coconut shells, and more.
The set is not polished or pristine, but then, it’s not supposed to be. It features two pieces of scaffolding that the actors climb on top of numerous times in the show, and a short ramp leading up to a curtained entrance between them. What makes this backyard playground atmosphere perfect for the play is that the audience’s imagination must play an enormous role. The simplicity and whimsicality of the show, and of this production, leads the audience to create part of the magic, part of the make-believe world. Therefore, the set (designed by the show’s director Phil Simmons), the costumes and the props (designed by Ben Despard), provide exactly the amount of structure needed to enhance the imaginative leaps the audience needs to make.
Obviously, a large part of the magic of a theatrical experience comes from its actors, and almost all of this show’s performers were tasked with creating multiple characters, making each of them distinct, and the transitions between them believable. Each of the 12 cast members, whether they play multiple roles or not, is almost always moving or dealing with a prop, and even in the rare moments of stillness, we find some of the most dramatic, and in some cases most difficult moments of the show.
Brendan Kelly and Kristin McSweeney shine as Peter and Molly Aster, the girl who shows him the way to his destiny, and saves his life -- several times. Their chemistry is perhaps aided by the fact that they are engaged in real life, but they are each captivating, charismatic, and poignant as the plucky youngsters whose wisdom, and friendly rivalry, grows throughout the piece. Matt Cameron is hilariously sinister as the conniving but slightly bumbling Black Stache, the pirate fated to become Peter’s greatest enemy, and Kim Alley is gleeful impish as his sidekick, Smee. Tyler Calhoun and Anthony Petrucci endow Prentiss and Ted, Peter’s eager friends and future lost boys, with endearing charm and sincerity.
John DeMerrell and Deborah Secord make an adorably comical couple as Mrs. Bumbrake, Molly’s very (and not-so) proper governess, and Alf, a strapping man she meets on their ship. Keith Kalinowski is a stoic and proud Lord Aster, and has a wonderful father-daughter rapport with McSweeney. Jeffrey Stringer, Eddie Rothermel, and Ali Ghannam round out the talented cast, jumping between characters and costumes with ease. Ghannam, Stringer, and Cameron provide a highlight of the show when they pause the plot momentarily to tell several nautical jokes.
Peter and the Starcatcher is not a musical, but a play with music: there is music underscoring the action, and a couple of group musical numbers thrown in for a bit of whimsy. Musical director Rebecca Biber is a nimble, soulful pianist, and though she has perhaps less to do than she would if the show were a musical, makes the most of every note she plays. She does a masterful job of guiding the actors in their minimal, but effective singing duties. This is no easy task because when the actors are singing, they are also almost always simultaneously chasing or being chased, or engaged in some other activity that is not conducive to singing, much less to singing in a group. Biber is ably assisted throughout by Brian Buckmaster’s tasteful percussion.
Some of the magic of the play also comes from familiarity with J.M. Barrie’s classic novel, or the many subsequent movie, musical, or play versions of Peter Pan. If you’re even tangentially acquainted with the story of the boy who never grew up, it’s especially fascinating to watch Peter and the Starcatcher, and see subtle, and not so subtle hints at what is to come in the life of Peter Pan. These references are handled sublimely, with no heavy-handedness in sight, but instead with a sly self-awareness that makes us giggle as much as the references themselves.
Though it is not a farce, Peter and the Starcatcher has many elements of the genre. Much of its success depends on timing and control, despite the appearance of chaos throughout. Phil Simmons lends a sure directorial hand and a consistent command of the show’s pacing, while also infusing the production with a dreamer’s eye.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Peter Pan story without flying, and there is ample flight in Peter and the Starcatcher. But flight occurs in the audience, too. We are transported to our childhood backyards, and stories of pirates, fairies, heroes, and heroines, and when the play is over, we’ve regained some of the child in us who used to dream of soaring through the clouds.
Emily Slomovits is an Ann Arbor freelance musician, theater artist, and writer. She plays music with her father and uncle (aka Gemini) and others, is a member of Spinning Dot Theatre, and has performed with The Encore Musical Theatre Company, Performance Network, and Wild Swan Theater.
"Peter and the Starcatcher runs Thursday-Saturday, July 27-29, at 8 pm in Ann Arbor’s West Park (in front of the band shell). Tickets are $15. Visit pennyseats.org for more info. Note: The show is outside, so be prepared with a blanket or chairs, an extra layer of clothing, and bug spray.