Therese Barbato, Ben Pelteson, & Paul Whitty in Peter and the Starcatcher.
Photo by Bill Brymer
Peter and the Starcatcher
By Rick Elice
Based on the novel by Dave Barry & Ridley Pearson
Music by Wayne Barker
Directed by Meredith McDonough
Review by Eli Keel
Entire contents copyright © 2016 by Eli Keel. All rights reserved
People often decry Hollywood, pointing to its obsession with sequels, remakes, reboots, pre-boots, and adaptations.
I generally ignore them, or quietly point to mythology, Shakespeare, the nascent days of the silver screen, or pretty much any other point in history that shows we’ve always wanted to know more about our favorite stories. We’ve always wanted to tell them, over and over.
Actors Theatre’s production of Peter and the Starcatcher follows that rich history, and brings us a story about one of pop culture’s more enduring characters, Peter Pan.
When the audience enters the Pamela Brown Auditorium they are treated to a gorgeous wooden set, with great arching beams stretching out, hiding the proscenium arch, and transforming the stage. It seems to simultaneously invoke a ship, a tree house, an attic, and every place you ever escaped from your parents to play make believe. Kudos to scenic designer William Boles. Now please come make me a pillow fort.
The script, by Rick Elice and based on the young adult novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, has that same sense of make believe. There are heavy elements of narration, though perhaps it would better be described as story telling. The 16-person ensemble frequently slips in and out of character, in and out of the actions, and even in and out of the time period while telling the story, and playing the action. Much like the play-time of children, the ensemble (and presumably the script) takes omnivorously from its environment, including jokes that range from 80’s rock to cartoon references. This sort of anachronistic humor usually gets on my last nerve; here it all felt natural and right.
Meredith McDonough’s direction keeps the sense of play always in the air. The jokes, stories, shadow puppets, songs, dances, and bits of stagecraft all coalesce due to her sure hand. In the first act she keeps the action light and fast, but manages to really nail a few meatier moments that could easily have slowed the play down. The pace feels a little slower in the second act, but I feel like it’s an inevitability of the prequel. The breathtaking movement of the first act is due to the constant rush of discovery, but the closer we get to the end of the play and the beginning of the Peter Pan we’re familiar with, the less we have to discover.
The ensemble is wonderful, with stand out moments for many members, but the majority of the actions falls on the shoulders of Molly, the titular Starcatcher; Black Stache, the evil pirate; and “Boy.”
Seth Clayton’s character begins the play with no name, called Boy until late in the action when he gets named Peter. He’s a zesty mix of awkward energy, hurt feelings, and lust for life. After seeing Clayton’s performance in I Will Be Gone during last year’s Humana festival, it was exciting to see him again. Nathan Keepers as Black Stache disappointed me a little first; he leans heavily into the coded gay antics that so many villains fall back on, especially in older fairy tales and animated movies. But, it’s true to our childhood memories of how these stories are often told, and he imbues Black Stache with so much life and joy that it transcends the tired trope. Though my inner intersectionalist tut tutted, I couldn’t stay mad at the wiley pirate. Therese Barbato as Molly, is the most substantial addition in terms of new characters. Structurally she displaces Wendy, telling a few bed-time stories, stirring some action, and being called “mother.” But she is an active participant in the action, on her own adventure that Peter just happens to be a part of. I don’t remember her getting rescued a single time, and if she did, it happened moments before she returned the favor. She starts as a great role model for little girls wanting to see themselves starring in adventures.
Despite a strong beginning, and a really incredible production, I found the end of Peter and Starcatcher unsatisfying on several levels. By way of epilogue, Molly is neatly sidelined so that her adventure feels like it only existed to create Peter. “Boy”, who was kind and vulnerable turns into Peter, a character that has always struck me as a bit of jerk, though that’s my genre experience of the character, and nothing to do with Clayton’s performance.
The good far outweighs the bad. After the second act I walked away with a spring in my step and a smile on my face; but after the first act I felt like I was flying.
Peter and the Starcatcher
January 26- February 21, 2016
Actors Theatre of Louisville
316 West Main Street
Louisville, Kentucky 40202
Eli Keel is a Louisville based playwright, poet, storyteller, and freelance journalist. He has been published in Word Hotel, his plays have been produced by Theatre  and Finnigan Productions, and he was invited to read his work at the 2014 Writer’s Block. He is a frequent contributor to LEO Weekly and Insider Louisville, where he has been given the (informal) title of “Chief of the Bureau of Quirk.”