Farmers Alley sets sail with ‘Peter and The Starcatcher’
KALAMAZOO, Mich.–Peter and the Starcatcher is not a predictable show.
If you’ve read the books by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, the stage version has different goals and is presented in a very different manner.
If you’re expecting a straight-up prequel to Peter Pan, you might be surprised at some of the twists and turns this story takes.
If you’re looking for a straight play or a traditional musical, well, Peter and the Starcatcher isn’t either one.
Farmer’s Alley is closing out its season with this show by Rick Elice and music by Wayne Barker. It’s directed by Stephen Brotebeck, who was involved as a movement associate with the show when it was on Broadway. And if you’re a regular attendee of the shows of this 9-year-old company, be sure to note that they are performing at the Little Theater on Western Michigan University, and not at their usual locale.
It is, in its own way, a prequel to the Peter Pan stories. In it we meet Molly (Courtney Martin) who is an apprentice starcatcher. It is the mid-1850s and she and her father, Lord Aster (Stephen Anthony Grey), are on a mission from Queen Victoria to dispose of the very dangerous “star stuff.”
Star stuff turns a person into whatever they want to be. While this sounds magical and desirable, it has been used by tyrants throughout history who want to rule the world.
Such heady stuff is beyond the dreamings of three orphans about to be sold to a savage king to be snake food. One of the boys has been an orphan so long, he no longer remembers his name. Yes, this Boy (Harrison Bryan) is our Peter and the adventures that follow give him a name and a destiny.
But Peter and the Starcatcher doesn’t limit itself to a simple imagining of Peter’s origin story. It is a highly theatrical work that takes on colonialism, the whole hero/villain motif, entertainment then and now, and the pretensions of theater and everyone in it. There is music—led beautifully by Music Director Lori Hatfield—and every move on stage is part of an elaborate choreography (done by the director given his experience with the original production).
In some ways, it is the inverse of a traditional musical. The important parts of the story are all told with spoken dialogue, while the music adds mood, theatricality, and character. With a very few exceptions, you could remove all the music and the plot would remain intact, though you’d be plunging a dagger in the show’s heart and soul.
The cast of 18 plays 50 different characters—along with parts of the ship, walls, trees, birds and the famous crocodile, or at least, the crocodile’s eyes and mouth. They play every gender and multiple species.
And the character who steals the show? Who admits that he chews up scenery? Who chooses his poetic milieu based on its popularity with the box office? Black Stache. He’s the pirate who will someday become Captain Hook. Played by Christopher Matsos, the script is almost written for his character and Matsos makes the most of it. He has moves that you’d be forgiven for thinking were only possible through CGI enhancement. He has voice work that sets him apart from the entire ensemble.
Matsos is a pirate in search of a villainous arc. Sure, treasure would be nice, but what he really wants is a story. He wants to be an archetypical figure who becomes a part of everyone’s cultural knowledge. This doesn’t happen accidentally. He seeks it out and he knows just what he needs to achieve it. He needs poetry. He needs villainy. He needs a hero. He needs a memorable mustache.
Peter and the Starcatcher is filled with wordplay that can quickly leave the inattentive behind. Stache has his poetry, Lord Aster and Molly have their proper Britishness—along with Dodo and Norse Code, Smee (Rod Cone)—Stache’s right-hand henchman has constant corrections for his boss. Then there is Molly’s nanny, Mrs. Bumbrake (Michael P. Martin). How Martin works his tongue around her alliterative monologues is left to the imagination. Perhaps he was weaned on Seuss’s “Fox in Socks” and wakes up to daily tongue-twisters. Whatever his methodology, Michael Martin was delightful as the proper British nanny who kept encouraging Molly to “be a woman.”
When not up to theatrical hijinks, the play gave focus to Molly, Peter and the two lost boys, Ted (Joey Uretta) and Prentiss (Kendall VanAmburg). They were the children trying to survive in a world of treacherous adults. Molly had her beliefs in all that is good and right—and Courtney Martin knew just how to play her so she was proper at times, confused at others and always sure of the rightness of her cause the British way.
Bryan did an excellent job of giving Peter an arc. He’s not very likeable at first, but then the Peter Pan he becomes is not always likeable and as a tendency to selfishness. But under Molly’s tutelage, Peter learns how to become something more than the beaten orphan who cannot see beyond his own nose. Bryan communicates his growth and change with a building wonder, an ability to break free of his self-imposed cage and his discovery of his own abilities and inner depth.
Uretta and VanAmburg imbue both their characters with their own quirks and play the supportive roles quite well.
In a play that relies as heavily on theatricality—a telling of the story that works specifically for this medium and takes advantage of what theater can do better than other forms of entertainment—the technical crew has to work as hard as the on-stage actors. Farmer’s Alley has a large crew for this production, with 27 people acting as designers, crew, musicians and artistic staff.
Kristen Martino creates a set that is a clever skeleton. It is, as the actors tell you in the beginning, a backdrop that is the British empire, two different ships (The Wasp and The Neverland), the ocean, the beach, a mountain, a grotto. It creates the room for the actors to form pieces of the stage and scenery so that the show moves at a breakneck pace.
Kathryn Wagner creates costumes that allow each of the characters to quickly transform from one person to another. They are period while being timeless. They are other-worldly while being down-to-earth. It’s a subtle, yet challenging task and Wagner undertakes it well.
Atis Kleinbergs’ fight choreography is constantly clever as he creates fights with fists, with sticks, with spears and even with a toilet plunger.
Peter and the Starcatcher is not your typical show. But if everything in the theater was the same, it would soon grow stale and die. What Farmer’s Alley does is present a show that aims to surprise, to delight, and to poke fun at conventionalities. And it is a goal they achieve quite well.