Fascinating, brilliant, exhilarating - on but rare occasions is one fortunate to be part of an audience that delights and emotes with a marvelous cast. We magically fuse within the narrative, each reveling in powerful and joyous synergy. And at the end, one immediately jumps up from one's seat and heartily applauds the unique experience. Such is the case with Peter and the Starcatcher, directed by Jackie Maxwell at the Royal George Theatre. It is superb, must-see viewing at the Shaw Festival this season, a show for all ages especially those who refuse to grow up!
Yes, it's the prequel to Peter Pan and as Maxwell suggests, the Festival 'takes you on a journey over sea, through battles with pirates, past mermaid sightings, and to the island that would later become Neverland. It doesn't take stardust, but imagination and a little stage magic as we transform the ropes and pulleys of the Royal George into ships, waterfalls, and island mountaintops. This piece requires a type of theatrical storytelling that we rarely get the opportunity to practice here at The Shaw. Instead of gloriously furnished drawing rooms or brilliantly conceived habitats, you will see a bare stage with an assortment of ladders, ropes and rigging. With the power of your imagination combined with ours, however, we will be able to travel absolutely anywhere ... in any way.'
Imagination is key to this 'story theatre,' wherein actors play multiple roles including that of objects and props such as ships, trees and ocean waves. Judith Bowden's minimalist set is perfect for this far-fetched tale, and her notes below are instructive.
Of course, the audience must play along, and this is where Shaw's formidable acting company rises to the fore, each performer up to the task and then some. It's like watching an all-star major league baseball lineup, every batter hitting well over 300!
Martin Happer as Black Stache, precursor to Captain Hook, is hilarious as the loveable villain armed with a plethora of mispronunciations, witty contemporary allusions and dreadful puns that elicit non-stop groans and gales of laughter which he milks like a consummate jester, easily stealing the show, particularly with a Johnny Carson-like long deadpan upon losing a hand to a slammed trunk.
Happer has a lot of help, including his 'right-hand man' Jonathan Tan as Smee who is 'stumped' when Stache loses the aforementioned hand (yes, it does get that bad, but by then, one is simply rolling on the steep floor of the Royal George), and he expertly employs every facial muscle available to help portray his dismay. Billy Lake brilliantly plays multiple personalities Grempkin, Mack, Sánchez and Fighting Prawn, and is side-splitting funny when giving orders to his 'tribe,' the Mollusk Island natives utilizing Italian named dishes like 'Cannoli!' and 'Linguini!' learned while in a London kitchen. 'Scampi,' for example, means "Let's get out of here!"
Patrick Galligan as Lord Aster, futilely tries to establish some British class to the proceedings but that is quickly subverted when he shrieks out in birdlike 'Dodo' code to his daughter Molly (Kate Besworth) who answers him in like manner with loud, high-pitched piercing cries.
Besworth, challenged to protect a trunk load of stardust from falling into the wrong hands, plays a smart young, determined woman to perfection, establishing an alliance along with not one, but two kisses with orphan Charlie Gallant, known only as Boy at first, but soon to become Peter Pan as we watch him gradually grow in confidence to assume his heroic stature. She sensitively ends the farewell scene with Peter with, "It has to hurt. That's how you know it mattered," indeed, wise beyond her years.
Gallant is one of three orphans including Andrew Broderick as Ted and James Daly
as Prentiss who both get in some good quips on their own while Shawn Wright is brazenly lecherous as Alf, who quickly puts the moves on the extraordinary Jenny L Wright as Mrs Bumbrake and Teacher. She puts on some incredible moves of her own, performing Cirque du Soleil-like gymnastics above the stage, while maintaining dialogue and later adding a song or two.
Kelly Wong plays Captain Scott of doomed Antarctic fame, warned not to let the Norwegians beat him, the dialogue always witty, and Graeme Somerville finally plays a heavy as Slank (and Hawking Clam). He handles a bull whip with menace and revels in his anti-hero casting with mean snarls and nasty threats!
Peter and the Starcatcher is based on the 2004 novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson concerned with what happened before JM Barrie's novel Peter and Wendy. Prior to becoming transformed into Peter Pan, a boy, one of three orphans, sails from London aboard a ship headed for mysterious shores. The ship's cargo, a prized trunk of stardust, initiates a chronic struggle between the Brits, pirates led by captain Black Stache and devious ship captains. Molly Aster, a young girl, bravely leads the boy into adventure. After a furious ship battle on the high seas, everyone escapes to Mollusk Island where natives utilizing Italian cuisine terminology, join the clash aided by Mister Grin, a huge crocodile. On the island, Molly and Peter fight to keep the stardust safe from the likes of Black Stache.
The play premiered on Broadway in 2012 and won five Tony Awards. Rick Elice's stage adaptation features flying cats, ticking crocodiles and a boxing match, all performed with Monty Python standards. The second act opens with a riotous number caused by group ingestion of stardust, the cast depicted as not-quite-enticing mermaids. This is a play that I could easily watch again later in the season! Peter and the Starcatcher plays to Nov. 1 at the Royal George Theatre. 1-800-511-SHAW or
Director's Notes by Jackie Maxwell
Any good piece of theatre is a combination of the story to be told and the telling of it. While
Peter and the Starcatcher is indeed a rich magical story, it was the latter that the cast and
creative team had to really focus on, embracing the 'story theatre' mode that the original creators had built into the tale. First, designer Judith Bowden, movement director Valerie Moore and I created a detailed storyboard through a series of long meetings last summer. Then musical director Ryan deSouza and lighting designer Kevin Lamotte added their invaluable contributions, followed by a workweek in the winter with the majority of our cast to develop our own storytelling vocabulary.
And so, on the first day of rehearsal in March, we walked into a room with some scaffolding, two trunks, a bunch of ladders and ropes, and a lot of ideas - and started to play. The result was a glorious mix of bravery, creativity, physical dexterity and delirious foolishness. We witnessed the calm and heady Graeme Somerville turn into a randy ship captain, marvelled at the gymnastics of Jenny Wright, watched senior company member Patrick Galligan roll across the floor with a mop on his head - while narrating. Jonathan Tan, Billy Lake and Shawn Wright developed a brood of endlessly surprising pirates, some of whom were terrorized by Martin Happer's brilliant and increasingly bi-polar Black Stache. We relished the flowering of Kate Besworth's feisty apprentice Starcatcher whose swimming scene was elevated by Kelly Wong's
inspired porpoise; and delighted in our three orphan boys - Charlie Gallant, James Daly and Andrew Broderick - as they grew into their own little family.
This inspiration had to be matched by extreme precision as each actor would swing from any of the above into being a compassionate narrator, part of a ship's corridor, or a storm-besieged sailor - all at the drop of - or assumption of - a hat!
And so, through one of the most hilarious, complicated, inspired and exhausting rehearsal processes I have ever been a part of, we have built our own version of this wonderful story and along the way have discovered the beating heart within it.
There is one original stage direction we never challenged or changed, however, and that is the very first one: "Enter a Company of Actors." We had that from Day One.
Life is not meant to be easy, my child; but take courage: it can be delightful.
Bernard Shaw, Back To Methuselah
Designer's Notes by Judith Bowden
One of the first things Jackie and I discussed was how to create a space that could easily morph into many other spaces more through the imagination and the creativity of the actors than technically. What kind of space would that be? We started to play around with the idea of ships and then, of course, it dawned on me - the great connection between ships and theatre spaces. Much of the technology from ships is what was used to create theatres and rigging systems. That seemed blindingly obvious once we got it.
There is a very good reason for this connection: 500 years ago most of the scenery was typically painted canvas and not unlike a sail in size and weight. Sailors were employed to hang the scenery and to operate the cables and pulleys to make scene changes because they had both the physical strength required and the expertise - they 'knew the ropes'. This is also why the stage floor is called the 'deck' and other locations around it include 'docks', 'bridges' and 'bays'; the technical staff are the 'crew', and some of them are 'hands'.
I took inspiration for the design from three primary sources which neatly combine sailing and theatre history. The Victorian Ropery in Chatham England, where ropes for English sailing vessels have been made since 1618. The other two are old theatres: the Harold Pinter Theatre in London's West End, and a well-preserved Baroque theatre in a castle in the Czech Republic. The Harold Pinter Theatre documented the dismantling of its old wooden equipment in 2011, including huge windlasses for raising and lowering scenery, which our scene shop has reproduced for Starcatcher.
From reading the script, there's a real urgency to all of that storytelling that we all recognize: when you start to tell a story and then you start looking around for something to grab that will help you continue to tell the story. But we wanted to limit the 'toys' available and keep them simple enough that they could be used in all sorts of ways. What we ended up with were ropes, theatre-type rigging such as pulleys and windlasses, ladders and sails. Everything that happens on stage is created using those elements.
Photos by David and Emily Cooper
Shaw Festival - 2015
Raving About: Peter and the Starcatcher
2015 Behind the Scenes - Peter and the Starcatcher