Arena Stage Uses Puppetry to Put Clever, Darker Twist on’Peter Pan’
Arena Stage’s “Peter and Wendy,” its experimental take on the “Peter Pan” classic, is probably one of the theater’s more notable productions. The play’s secret: It’s all in the wrists. Oh, and the voice.
That’s because Arena’s Kreeger Theater has been invaded by an alien puppet troupe! Many dexterous hands, a woman who performs the narration and all the characters’ voices, as well as a couple of rags that come to life create a Neverland that’s never been witnessed before.
Mabou Mines, an experimental theater ensemble known for its adaptations of the classics, has transformed Arena’s traditional performance space into a world of adult magic. Here, the group adapts two forms of Asian puppetry to tell the story of “Peter Pan”: bunraku, where dolls act out a dramatic narrative to stringed accompaniment, and wayang kulit, where puppets against a translucent screen create shadows while a master puppeteer performs all the voices.
The production starts off with a shot of enchantment and a shock of multiculturalism not associated with the Broadway or Disney versions of “Peter Pan.” True to the stage play, the action begins in the Darling’s nursery, but that’s where the play ceases to resemble the well-known children’s fairytale.
First, clumps of scattered white cloth on the floor transform into puppeteers wearing veiled white beekeeper-like garb. Then an androgynous African American woman, also in full-length white, arrives as the charismatic, sophisticated narrator. Also the voice of every character, she looms eerily large over the six-inch puppets in her portrayal of Wendy in her own body.
The narrator steps into the ethereal whiteness of the stage to the lilts of a live Celtic band and singers (“Peter Pan” author J.M. Barrie was Scottish). Then she seduces the audience with one-liners: “Why did Mrs. Darling choose Mr. Darling over all of her countless suitors who ran to her side to propose? Because Mr. Darling was different: He took a cab.”
The play is endearing and brilliantly clever.
Karen Kandel as the narrator, who originated the role in “Peter and Wendy,” received three Village Voice OBIE Awards for Mabou Mines’s “Lear,” “Peter and Wendy” and “Talk” for good reason. She is phenomenal, projecting a Lily Tomlin-like skill to switch voices so quickly that at times they seem to overlap. Kandel instills soul into the carrot-topped Peter and the Darling’s dog Nana, formerly a brown rag—so much so that the audience actually worries about these dolls. Indeed, the theater troupe’s manipulations and Kandel’s voices are so seamless that you only see the puppets and forget about the group of people on stage.
But how does the saying go? Too much of a good thing? The show is two and a half hours long, which is a possible overestimation of the average theatergoer’s patience. One minute you’re astonished that inanimate Peter seems alive; the next minute you’re wishing the director had cut the script short. A theatergoer is required to really like puppetry and possibly animated films to thoroughly enjoy this genre-specific production.
In addition to being told in a different medium, this version of “Peter Pan” is a bit darker than others. In this rendition, the well-known theme of “I won’t grow up” becomes more like, “Darn, in reality we’re all going to die.”
This unsettling interpretation isn’t so strange after being privy to Barrie’s original inspiration for the script, which has been glossed over through the years. According to the Yale Repertory Theatre, for the first six years of his life, Barrie lived in the shadow of his bright and talented older brother, David. After David was killed in a skating accident at age 14, Barrie would pretend to be his older brother to ease his mother’s deep depression. He also soon realized that by dying so young, David would remain a boy forever in the minds of all who had known him—the lost boy who never grew up. No wonder Barrie wrote about themes that idealized childhood while portraying a disenchanted view of adult life.
In “Peter and Wendy,” adulthood is laced with cruelty. Mr. Darling, who incidentally has a Scottish brogue, almost strangles Nana the dog by yanking her out of the nursery where she is loved and thrusting her into the cold backyard. Captain Hook, who is always sinister, is uncannily even more threatening as a lifeless puppet.
The play’s sense of loss is also more intense. Wendy suffers from her inability to follow Peter forever, Peter feels Wendy’s adulthood is a rejection, and the grownups deeply mourn the loss of their children who escape into fantasy. Even the band of “Lost Boys” in Neverland—a collection of bare wooden dolls—are creepy and skeleton-like. When Wendy clutches them to her chest in maternal love, it feels like a desperate, futile attempt to find a lasting connection.
The production can be lauded on the one hand for bringing a deeper interpretation to “Peter Pan.” But it is also dangerously all over the map and appears to try too hard. Between the Celtic music, Scottish brogue and the furry of puppetry antics, it is, at times, indigestible.
That said, in a town of highly sophisticated but often predictable theater, “Peter and Wendy” is nothing less than unique.
Peter and Wendy through June 24 Arena Stage 1101 6th St., SW Tickets are to . For more information, please call (202) 488-3300 or visit www.arenastage.org.
About the Author
Lisa Troshinsky is the theater reviewer for The Washington Diplomat.