Peter Pan

Straight On Til Mourning

Third-year YSD director Dustin Wills’ thesis production of J. M. Barrie’s classic Peter Pan is everything a thesis show should be: a unique vision of a well-known work that revisits familiar (and not so familiar) terrain with a new perspective. Wills’ adaptation places Pan in an orphange during World War I, an alteration that creates an entirely different play. It’s also an exemplary thesis show in presenting resources of ensemble acting that set a new standard for the School, which does rather strive to get as many of its acting students involved in any project as possible. In Wills’ Pan, the actors play multiple roles but, in essence, each play one role: a child/orphan, enacting various parts in a child’s version of Peter Pan, and that entails marshaling all props themselves and creating before our wondering eyes all the necessary spaces and events of Peter’s adventures, from the house of the Darlings to a pirate ship, from a rock in the sea at rising tide to a battle with bayonets affixed—and, in Joey Moro’s ingenious design, lighting themselves, as well as seeming to construct Grier Coleman’s costumes ex tempore. The cast is so tremendously busy we have scarcely time to catch our breath, never mind how they do. And, with such a large cast—13—and so many events, it comes as a surprise how fast these two hours with no intermission pass. If you’ve attended many thesis shows then you know that what comes hardest is pacing. This Peter Pan must be pursued by the clock-containing crocodile, so well does it make use of its time.

Wills and his scenic designer, Mariana Sanchez Hernandez, present us with a set that is a testament to war-time austerity and dilapidation, with peeling, no doubt asbestos-ridden paint, hot water pipes overhead, opaque window panes, and uniform cots. The kids in the orphanage are in hopes of adoption and so their story of how a young girl comes to play mother for a host of Lost Boys in Neverland is at once a fantasy projection and a compensation. This innovation adds greatly to characters who, in the play, are simply take-offs on boyhood types, as these actors might, at any time, break character when something in the play strikes too close to home.

I don’t doubt that any parental types in the audience will arrive at a favorite they would gladly adopt—Tootles (Chris Bannow) is the most endearing, but there’s also the know-it-all, Curly (Aaron Luis Profumo), the preening Slightly (Aaron Bartz), the winsome Nibs (Maura Hooper), and the Twins (Hugh Farrell with a hand mirror and an authentic expression of dazed excitement); all also play Indians and/or pirates as required; then there are those who stay pretty much in one or two characters: Prema Cruz’s petulant Tinkerbell and regal Tiger Lily; Michelle McGregor’s blustering Smee and doting Mrs. Darling; Matthew McCollum’s thoughtful John; Mariko Nakasone’s feisty Michael, the baby of the family, and Sophie von Haselberg’s Wendy, a girl almost too mature for make-believe who playacts Mother in hopes of winning Peter’s heart.

Any might at any time step to the footlights and stammer something heartfelt; at one point, after hearing Wendy sing about what her ideal house would be like, all the kids rush to the edge of the stage to fling at us their individual visions of the home of their dreams. Such breaks in the orphans’ make-believe register a reality all are usually at pains to mask.

Their show begins with willful play-acting when “Mrs. Darling,” observes “her children” Wendy and John play-acting as their parents; soon enough the “real” Mr. Darling (Tom Pecinka) shows up and scolds everyone, especially the dog, Nana (Christopher Geary) who is banished from the nursery, thus setting up Peter’s arrival. What this production loses in whimsical magic—no “actual” elfin child floating into the room with fairy dust—it gains in the kinds of magical conjurations that children find in their collective imaginings—sheets as the sea, lifted beds indicating flight, characters pulled about on wagons and wheeled ladders. And forget the fey, androgynous Peters common to productions with a woman in the role; Mickey Theis’ Peter is robust and boyish, and when he takes on Hook (Pecinka) late in the play it feels like a boxing match as well as a duel to the death.

This is a very physical production, with tons of moving parts—some favorite moments are Wendy floating off the rock on a kite, the rock itself a mountain of valises; the props grabbed together to make the crocodile; Tootles’ stray shot with a real gun; the picture-book rescue of Peter from the rock by way of the Neverbird (Christopher Geary, looking like a downed airman—he is also relentlessly amusing as the pirate Starkey); everything said by Pecinka’s Hook, generally in a state of high dudgeon, letting envy of Peter’s fecklessness become, at last, thwarted love; near the end, Hook, in a fit of pique, threatens Peter with a “holocaust of children”—a potent phrase that seems to bring on a grim series of events that all the make-believe in the world can’t prevent. The final moments of the production flip into the nightmarish as children who don’t want to grow up become children who don’t get to.

Inventive, lively, and surprisingly serious, this Peter Pan lets us feel not only a very real cry for the cozy world of a mother’s care but makes us feel the threats to childhood that we should care about: the final images, set in the time of the Great War, can easily be transported to the time of the Blitz or to the sites of our contemporary drone strikes. Wills and company reach out from an orphans’ nursery—filled with children already missing important aspects of family and identity—to grab us with a sense of the atrocity that is the loss of innocence, and the loss of innocent lives.

This Peter Pan is not for children.


Peter Pan By J.M. Barrie Adapted and directed by Dustin Wills

Composer: Daniel Schlosberg; Scenic Designer: Mariana Sanchez Hernandez; Costume Designer: Grier Coleman; Lighting Designer: Joey Moro; Sound Designer: Tyler Kieffer; Production Dramaturg: Dana Tanner-Kennedy; Stage Manager: Anita Shastri

Yale School of Drama December 13-19, 2013

In Search of Peter Pan

The second Yale School of Drama thesis show goes up tomorrow night, Friday the 13th. Third-year director Dustin Wills, recently honored by a Princess Grace Award for his final year of study at YSD, presents his adaptation of J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. Wills, who was co-Artistic Director for the highly successful Yale Summer Cabaret of 2013, says he sought out “dark children’s stories” after realizing his plan to adapt Pinocchio was unworkable. Peter Pan, dark? Wills went to the Beinecke where he found all the various drafts of J.M. Barrie’s work on the play, which the author rewrote yearly throughout much of his life—beyond the initial stage play of 1904, An Afterthought, four years later, and the prose work, Peter and Wendy, based upon it, published in 1911. Wills, who has seen several productions, was drawn to the story, he thinks, by his former work in his home state of Texas, devising theater for underserved audiences, such as juvenile detention centers. The theme of “the Lost Boys”—the children “who fall out of prams” and are lost, until they turn up in Neverland—appealed to Wills, finding in the play a tribute to the imagination of children.

“No matter how dire things may be, nothing stops the imagination,” he said, and the story of how children might clutch onto imaginary worlds, and to youth, certainly has resonance. In his past work with children, Wills was struck by “the cleanliness of their imaginations vs. the messiness of their emotions.” The key, then, is to find a vehicle that shows the tensions within children’s imaginative compensations. Though the play is contemporary with Freud, Wills sees the text as pre-Freudian, even as he has decided to move the setting forward in time. Wills sets his production in 1917, and intends the war-time setting to inspire much of the children’s anxiety.

This Peter Pan is less about spectacle—no one flies, a decision not an imposed limitation—and more about themes of loss, abandonment, and the community that sustains the children in Neverland. With a cast of thirteen, the show is large, and features what Wills calls “ruin porn” in its set—the picturesque qualities of the dilapidated and partially destroyed, showing the grim realities the children have to work with. In Wills’ conception, the children—orphans all—are putting on the show in an effort to find homes among would-be adopting families. Thus one can expect that the elements of showmanship—as Wills’ actors play children acting—will underscore the tenuous relation between the children’s imagination and the audience’s willful suspension of disbelief.

The first thing, then, is that we believe in the children as children. Wills said he has coached his actors to be themselves as children—or early teens at most—as much as possible. The cast, Wills said, became very close very quickly, and “everybody worked really well together from the start,” which has permitted the show to do a full tech run-through well ahead of schedule. And that’s even with a few setbacks, such as Wills himself being sick when the rehearsals began, and losing the actor originally cast as Hook due to an injury during a classroom workshop.

The prospect of actors behaving as younger versions of themselves who then take on the roles in the “Peter Pan” show the orphanage is putting on—including the Darling home as well as Neverland—permits the kind of interesting double-vision found in play-within-a-play situations. The text of Wills’ show, then, is not a version of Peter Pan that anyone will have seen before. His researches led Wills to “grab from all sources,” including a screenplay for a silent film that Barrie composed, as well as incorporating a line that has always been cut from the play, but which Wills restores.

For Wills, the play, in its Edwardian setting, has always been to some degree about “what childhood means.” Granted, there are highly un-PC aspects of the play Barrie wrote—with Indians as savages and girls as domestic servants in-waiting—but Wills wants to retain those aspects to indicate how childish imaginations work. The question this should raise, among modern—adult—audiences (Wills’ show is not designed as an entertainment for children) is “what did I grow up on?”

Wills stresses how all of us, in our fantasies, incorporate the materials that have left their mark on our imaginations, the images that arise from whatever dimly remembered tales and films and shows and cartoons of our youth. Certainly, for generations in the U.S. since the fifties, the prevailing common denominator has been Disney, but in earlier eras the stereotypes of the day—in children’s adventure stories—would’ve done that work. Peter Pan and his adventures, then, becomes the kind of tale children themselves might invent as a defense against the grown-up world of war and chaos, even as they invent manageable villains—a pirate (Captain Hook)—and an exotic maiden (Tiger Lily), a fairy (Tinkerbell), and a mother figure (Wendy), for sentimental reasons.

In Wills’ production we may hope to see, rescued from the preciousness of Disney and the more upbeat aspects of Broadway, a Peter Pan grown-up at last.


Yale School of Drama presents Peter Pan Directed and adapted by Dustin Wills

Yale University Theatre December 13-19, 2013