After I took my kids to see a local community theater production of Peter Pan, I decided that I wanted them to see the version that was canonical in my mind.

When I was a kid, my brother and I had a couple dozen videos and minimal access to actual television. We solidly memorized every VHS tape we wore out–Pete’s Dragon, Mary Poppins, The Tale of the Bunny Picnic, The Wizard of Oz. One of them was the Mary Martin Peter Pan. I’m pretty sure it was the 1960 version.

To be clear, the story is hella problematic. So much so that Emma Thompson is making a new movie about the women of the Darling family fighting back against the curse of Pan (I’ll be there on opening day, who’s coming with me?). I was quick to point out the pile of awful that is this story, and I think my kids have enough background to be ready to have that conversation. At one point, Silas said, “Why do the boys think that they need a mother to do their spring cleaning?” and before I could answer, Petra said, “It’s because they had much bigger patriarchy then than we do now. We still have too much, but it was bigger then.”

And let’s not even get started on blonde Tiger Lily. By the third time she came on screen, Silas said, before I could even open my mouth, “Yes, we know, this is not how any actual indigenous peoples talked ever, and Tiger Lily is a white person doing a caricature of a Native American person, and that is terrible. But…this dance is really good.” Jerome Robbins does not disappoint, he’s right.

The kids loved it–how could they not? It’s brilliant. But the surprise in it for me, seeing it for the first time in at least twenty-five years, was how much my work as a theater artist now was influenced by it.

This film is a filmed stage play, and the mechanics of the stage are apparent in every moment. The fly apparatus is quite visible, the set pieces move in a theatrical way, the animals are all people in full-body puppets and there’s no real effort to hide that. It’s the theater of the imagination, all over the place, and it’s what I do.

There’s a lot of “this thing is true because we say it is true.” In one scene, Peter is hiding from Captain Hook. At any moment, if Hook would just be ever so slightly faster at turning around, he’d catch Peter–but he never does. How many times have I subconsciously mimicked this exact “hiding in plain sight” lazzo? Then Peter appears with a scarf over his head (but not covering his face). Hook immediately says, “Look at that beautiful lady!” He doesn’t recognize Peter, even though he should. My kids, watching, didn’t say, “Why doesn’t he know it’s Peter?” They were in stitches because the conceit was so perfectly carried out.

One thing I tell actors all the time is, “You can get away with anything if you truly commit.” This show has epic commitment, from every actor. Nobody is halfway commenting on their character’s ridiculousness. They are all, all in. Cyril Ritchard, as Captain Hook, is especially brilliant in his commitment to the character.

There’s a rather delightful minimalism, for all that this was a Broadway play. At the point where the boys build a house for Wendy, they create a house out of simple materials, assembled in a minute, precisely suited to the needs of the scene. Watching it, I thought about the solution Brian and I designed for Noye’s Fludde that allowed Noah and his family to construct the ark onstage while singing, in under three minutes.

Can we talk about the lighting design? I was fascinated to see the scene with Peter’s shadow–there’s some brilliant lighting work there. When I’m working in theaters that I can make dark, it’s all I can do not to put shadow puppets everywhere. Beyond that, there are vibrant colors everywhere, and the lights contribute to the story. I’m a huge fan of practicals (using regular lighting fixtures on the set), and there’s a lovely moment where Tinkerbell hides inside of an oil lamp and it lights up.

There’s also minimal regard for the “fourth wall”–Peter famously asks the children in the audience to clap their hands if they believe in fairies, but that moment doesn’t come out of nothing. Throughout the film/play characters are glancing at the audience with a wink, or taking a line to them. It was filmed in an empty theater space, but the imaginary audience is both present and deliberately engaged.

And, of course, cross-gendered casting. Petra and Silas have seen so much original practices Shakespeare that they aren’t phased by an actor playing a character of another gender. I remember, as a child, being fascinated that the role of Peter Pan was played by a woman. Watching it as an adult with some experience in that type of theater, I was amazed at how my mind could move fluidly from accepting her as a boy to popping with excitement when this female actor, speaking as a male character, said some very specific things about what boys and girls are capable of. It’s the same kind of pop that my brain does when I hear a female actor say, “Transform us not to women.”

I never would have mentioned this show, if you asked me about performances that influenced my work. But I see its threads running through everything I do.

2 Replies to “Fairy Dust

  1. This moved me in several ways. I loved the movie when I was a boy and wished I could fly. I was intrigued by the fact that a woman played Peter, but it flowed beautifully and I believed in it. When Peter dressed as a woman with the scarf, it tickled my imagination. The fact it was a stage play helped me love theater. I acted through high school (and in church too). Then once in my 40’s at FSC.

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