Last Wednesday, February 19, was the opening night for the Players’ Theatre production of James Matthew Barrie’s Peter Pan. While Players’ rendition is an entertaining opportunity to revisit a childhood classic many of us are familiar with, its contemporary “gothic spin” fails to create a compelling alternative to the original.
The original tale, best known to all from Walt Disney’s animated movie, tells the story of a child’s never-ending youth on the imaginary island of Neverland. As the leader of the Lost Boys, children who fell out of their prams and were never reclaimed by their parents, Peter Pan tells them countless tales and fables which they believe to be true. While mainly interacting with the fantastic creatures of Neverland, Peter Pan occasionally returns to the real world. After having lost his shadow at the Darling household, he meets Wendy (Charlotte Doucette) and her brothers, who agree to follow Peter Pan to his world. Wendy will eventually become a sort of surrogate mother to the Lost Boys.
In recent years, the story of Peter Pan has been heavily criticized for its stereotypical representations of Indigenous peoples as conceived of by European colonialists in the 18th and 19th centuries. As Kelly Richmond, the play’s director, explained, the insertion of offensive and erroneous conceptions of Indigenous cultures in the original narrative was certainly due to their “commercial appeal for young boys.”
In an attempt to sidestep the racism embedded within Barrie’s original, Richmond chose not to depict Indigenous peoples and to instead present Tiger Lily (Lucy Gripper) as a tough and shadowy girl, constantly surrounded by her threatening female posse. While Players’ attempt to minimize the play’s racist potential is laudable, their decision to use a gothic posse instead is questionable. Richmond’s version differed from the original due to its “gothic spin,” mostly consisting of Tiger Lily’s vixen posse, as well as in the physical absence of fan-favourite characters Tinker Bell and the Crocodile, who were nonetheless still present thanks to ringing and tick-tocking sound effects. Neverland, as an imaginary land home to fairies, pirates, the Lost Boys, and more, made the insertion of Tiger Lily as an intriguing and glamorous figure fit the narrative perfectly, yet failed to provide as much depth as Barrie’s problematic Indigenous characters.
Richmond’s version differed from the original due to its “gothic spin,” mostly consisting of Tiger Lily’s vixen posse, as well as in the physical absence of fan-favourite characters Tinker Bell and the Crocodile, who were nonetheless still present thanks to ringing and tick-tocking sound effects.
The scenery, set on several levels, was elaborate and well-crafted. The lighting, mainly consisting of twinkling lights on strands hung all over the walls of the theatre, offered rich golden and yellow tones that created an intimate ambiance, reminiscent of the ones children love to create to tell each other stories. Yet there was not much evidence of the spectacular strobe lighting that the play’s program promised. The costumes and the makeup of the actors themselves, which were subtle yet intricate, were most impressive. The decision to get Peter Pan, Captain Hook, and Tiger Lily to wear azure, emerald, and ruby contact lenses was particularly pleasing, rendering each character’s gaze eerily piercing and all the more compelling.
Rebecca Pearl’s impressive physical energy made for an impeccable rendition of Peter Pan as a hyperactive and headstrong little boy. Pearl, with her petite frame, seemed like the perfect human incarnation of the Disney Peter Pan most of us know. Actor Maka Ngwenya’s versatility and vivaciousness was also a high point of the play, offering viewers excellent renditions of an overdramatic Mrs. Darling and a sassy Captain Hook. Ngwenya was a very over-the-top Captain Hook, with a huge cigar and an oversized hook, a touch of comic effect that made the character that much stronger. While the first act went by very smoothly, the second act featured many exhaustive battle scenes. Although they were impressively choreographed, and made to come to life vividly by the whole cast of 20 actors, the extended scenes of youthful fighting that were entertaining to us as children are not as appealing to a grown up audience.
In sum, the success of Players’ Peter Pan lies in the quality of its acting and the richness of its decor. Yet for many, the main lure of attending this production is the fact that it will certainly make you reminisce about your childhood days, the meaning of growing up, and whether your adult self has met the expectations of the child that you once were.
Peter Pan runs from February 26 to March 1 at 8 p.m. at Players’ Theatre (3480 McTavish). Tickets are $6 for students.