“Peter and the Starcatcher” answers the question, “Who was Peter Pan before he was the red-haired, youthful scamp of Disney lore?” But it does so while serving up an unexpected side of female empowerment, sassy pirates and cross-dressing mermaids.
Peter Pan, simply known as the Boy, finds himself aboard the “Neverland,” sailing towards the kingdom of Rundoon. At the same time, the H.M.S. Wasp chugs ahead, with a trunk of mystical, transformative “starstuff” stowed onboard. On “Neverland,” the Boy (played by Bryan Welnicki) meets the precocious Molly Aster, starcatcher-in-training, who must prevent the precious cargo from falling into the clutches of the fearsome pirate Black Stache and the brutish Captain Slank. And thus the well-worn tale of abandoned boy meets privileged girl is dusted off and reimagined.
Molly Aster (played by Aisling Halpin), daughter of starcatcher Lord Leonard Aster, stands out as the only female character in the cast (besides her stout governess Mrs. Bumbrake, delightfully played by Tim Hackney). She asserts herself over the Boy and his orphan sidekicks early on, despite their insistence that “the leader is supposed to be a boy.” While Molly is truly a capable young girl, Halpin often comes off as shrill and pedantic rather than charming. She shines, however, when she is alone with the Boy, talking to him rather than talking at him.
But the real star of the production is neither the Boy nor Molly — the lovable villain Black Stache (played by Joe Beuerlein) steals the show. Taking his character above and beyond his successor Captain Hook, Beuerlein’s pirate has a flair for comically infantile outbursts and rhyming couplets. He goes from prancing around a ship to wielding a straight razor under Molly’s neck in a matter of seconds. And while the children are serious, the Black Stache is flippant.
“She’s a better fighter than me!” Peter cries.
“And a faster runner too!” Molly adds.
“And I bet your milkshakes bring all the boys to the yard too!” the Black Stache roars.
The play’s true strength lies in its twelve-member cast: they spin a tight, rollicking narrative by doubling as set and characters. When the players are not performing in the foreground, they stand shoulder to shoulder, backs towards the audience, forming a human passageway of doors. At other times, they frantically whip thick ropes across the stage, mimicking deck-splitting waves. But most of the time, they simply roar, echo, pantomime, and amplify the interactions between the two or three characters downstage. The production is so fast-paced that the makeshift Greek chorus can’t afford to miss a single beat, and it doesn’t.
“Peter and the Starcatcher” is best when it is outrageous, over-the-top, and self-aware. At certain points, the actors try a little too hard, taking themselves a bit too seriously. Molly’s attempt at a faithful British accent ends up falling short. (If she is a prim and proper English girl, where do her Cockneyisms come from?) On the other hand, tribal leader Fighting Prawn’s gutteral dialect, inflected with French and Italian, is excellent.
While the play is peppered with anachronistic cultural references, these allusions are surpisingly enjoyable. “Peter and the Starcatcher” avoids cheap pop culture references and mercifully, the Black Stache delivers most of the quips. My favorite line, however, is in Molly’s defiant monologue: “Starstuff must be kept out of the hands of the Genghis Khans, Hitlers, and Stalins of the world, the people who seek total domination—like Ayn Rand!”
Ultimately, the Boy’s harsh upbringing as an orphan isn’t as memorable as the two-and-a-half hour adventure we embark on with him. Bryan Welnicki’s Peter Pan is a bundle of contradictions, wanting to lead yet deferring to Molly’s authority, stuck between England and his new home, the island of Rundoon. Though he is cynical about adults, he is enthusiastic about his youth. Either way, by the time the curtain fell, I felt a little closer to the boy who wouldn’t grow up.