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Theater Review:

"THE TERRIBLE TRAGEDY OF PETER PAN," The House at The Viaduct

BY LUCIA MAURO

Considering that the title of The House’s latest collaborative performance-theater piece is "The Terrible Tragedy of Peter Pan," audiences should not expect to see Cathy Rigby soaring on wires across the wide beams of The Viaduct. But Phillip C. Klapperich’s provocative adaptation of J.M. Barrie’s famed Victorian book, about a boy who refuses to grow up, includes some stunning gymnastic feats – and much more.

This young multidisciplinary company – whose members consist mainly of Southern Methodist University theater graduates – scoops out the subtextual innards of this deceptively lighthearted children’s story and serves them up as a bold and curious theatrical buffet. It then garnishes the book’s bleaker messages with music, movement, magic and some of the most dangerous, original and precise stage combat to dart across our local theater landscape, which has long resounded with the clang of broadswords.

In Klapperich’s version, Peter Pan stubbornly resists adulthood not because childhood brims with such innocent joy, but because he’s terrified of the responsibilities and disappointments inherent to growing up. Interestingly, Peter and the Lost Boys of Never-Never Land lead unspeakably dreary and lonely lives – not much different from perhaps the dismal future that lay ahead. This Peter also remains obliviously self-absorbed. He’s unaware, until it’s too late, that he has hurt or destroyed those who truly love him.

While Klapperich does not favor long-winded academic theorizing (except for the redundant Doctor figure), he carefully dissects the text to highlight the often detrimental links one forges with a wife, mother or lover. Wendy has been expanded to the supreme maternal being – only to grow frustrated over Peter’s lack of romantic interest in her. She also underscores the notion of men marrying women to replicate their inextricable attachment to their mothers. The tough-talking Tinker Bell epitomizes an almost volcanic force of jealously – her evil machinations beneath her fierce loyalty become an odd hybrid of mother and lover.

Captain Hook and his bloodlust-driven pirates struggle with similar contradictory connections to women. The pirate Smee – in two pivotal scenes involving Tiger Lily and Wendy – represents this classic tug-o-war as urges to rape and murder battle against a deep-seated desire to love and protect.

It’s these astutely entwined concepts of roles and relationships that make this "Peter Pan" such a compelling experience. Director Nathan Allen conveys these complexities through an imaginatively suggestive amalgam of styles. And he doesn’t sacrifice humor for the sake of unmasking the psychological underpinnings of a tale set within the double-standard-laced strictures of Victorian society.

Klapperich also manages to make startling statements about the injustices to Native Americans (and their most glowering stereotypes) through a subtle form of showing – and implying the suspicion with which they are regarded -- rather than injecting pompously self-aware commentary.

The production, however, can still undergo smoother shaping and polishing. While it’s a marvel to see Wendy elevated via magician Dennis Watkins’ (who also plays the Doctor) deft sleight of hand or Tiger Lily wield an ax and flute with equal force and agility, the blending of disciplines has not yet fused into a cohesive whole.

At times, it seems as if an element (like a snake puppet or one of Tinker Bell’s many back flips) were included because an ensemble member was adept at that special skill. A segment featuring Wendy, Tinker Bell and Tiger Lily clad in red dresses and lip-synching to "Chain of Fools" adds no inventive dimensions to the story. It appears thrown in to stall for time during a scene change.

The quality and comfort-level of performances also vary. Matthew Hawkins (responsible for the fearless fight choreography) balances the rugged pirate Smee’s vicious disposition with an aching need for beauty and inner peace. Although a supporting player, Marika Mashburn as both skittish Lost Boy Nibs and the marvelously voyeuristic Mrs. Darling is a focused and kinetic presence.

Carolyn Defrin expertly merges Wendy’s gawky, repressed and steadfast qualities. Lauren Vitz, despite her obscenity-spewing Tinker Bell, finds the generosity in her envious fairy’s heart. Stephen Taylor’s Peter Pan convincingly stands on the precipice between boy- and manhood. But he can still plumb the ragingly paradoxical depths of his iconic character.

Maria McCullough makes a tough and sensual Tiger Lily – and delivers a bravura combat sequence with Hawkins’ Smee – but has not quite nailed down her character’s driving force. And Johnny Arena’s dandy-esque villain, Captain Hook, reveals an acute vulnerability, but his portrayal wavers in tentative limbo.

Tiffany Williams’ set succinctly transports us to Peter’s inverted world through a central window and a wooden plank adorned with a knotted rope ladder and steering wheel. The window is reminiscent of Alice’s rabbit hole – and, in many ways, Allen’s staging encompasses the similar dark distortions of Wonderland, further enhanced by lighting designer Nick Lange’s brawny and surreal illumination (including a clever portrayal of Peter recovering his shadow).

The show opens with Mrs. Darling literally "rummaging through" her children’s minds as they sleep. She pulls from a glittery box a bowling pin, a blanket, a pack of cigarettes, a vibrator – leading her to conclude that it’s impossible to prevent knowledge from entering one’s child’s brain. Growing up is inevitable. And, like "Alice in Wonderland," The House’s "Peter Pan" walks a terrifying tightrope between cradle and grave.•

The House’s production of "The Terrible Tragedy of Peter Pan" is futher extended through October 26 at The Viaduct, 3111 N. Western Ave. Tickets: $12. Call 773-251-2195 or log onto www.thehousetheatre.com.


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