Somewhere in the shadowy corner of every heartwarming tale of mirth is some complex darkness, even if that story is about a perpetually young boy who refuses to grow up. But like Peter Pan clumsily trying to reattach his shadow in the early stages of J.M. Barrie’s 1904 play, the great New York theater company Bedlam stumbles in their attempt to accentuate and explore the psychological complexities of this fairytale.
Certainly the undertaking is laudable, and the final product (adapted collaboratively by the six-person company, and directed by Eric Tucker, Bedlam’s artistic director) offers much to ponder and chew on, but the show becomes too deep of a dive into Neverland’s unexplored recesses, and concept overwhelms coherence.
Under Tucker’s direction, Bedlam is most notable for shrugging off expectations and restraints on classic material in ways that challenge and often enliven. Their four-person version of Shaw’s Saint Joan was brilliantly conceived, as was their darkly impassioned What You Will, or Twelfth Night, and their Sense and Sensibility has had several successful New York runs. The company succeeds not by imposing unconventional staging, but by giving themselves over to the play in ways that allow the work to speak in fresh, unexpected ways.
The company’s Peter Pan looks like familiar Bedlam—simple set, small cast playing a variety of roles, chintzy props, casual costumes—but finds less satisfying results, perhaps because the script has been massaged and manipulated more directly than in the past. What You Will, or Twelfth Night looks like no other Twelfth Night ever produced, but it is so great because all of its uniqueness is firmly rooted in and grows organically out of Shakespeare’s script. The traces of the company’s adaptation of Barrie’s script are far more evident here, and as a result the production’s uniqueness feels forced, often imposed.
This Peter Pan seems most interested in the human drama underlying the whimsical story. A bit of a macho edge to the character of Peter is not foreign to the story’s production history, but here, the captain of the Lost Boys (Brad Heberlee) is more isolated and jaded towards life. His constant claim that he wants always to be a little boy and have fun seems colored by trauma, defiance, and a good deal of willful self-delusion. Susannah Millonzi’s Tinkerbell is in a similar predicament: her feisty jealousy is familiar, but here she is angrier, more bitter than usual, seemingly reaching the end of a rope that has long been unspooling.
Tinkerbell joins Wendy (Kelley Curran) and her mother Mrs. Darling (Zuzanna Szadkowski) as a triad of women who become the focal point of this production. Tucker’s direction suggests a mirroring of the experience of Mrs. Darling—a sexually frustrated mother whose children have vanished without a trace—and Wendy—a maturing but still young girl with maternal expectations foisted upon her. Both women struggle to find their own voices as at once independent and desirous of human connection. Szadkowski might double as Captain Hook, or it might very well be that Hook is a powerful fantasy of Mrs. Darling, whose desperation for an identity has resulted in the creation of an alter ego.
All of these questions are intriguing to ponder, but as the uncertainty of Hook’s existence might suggest, the clarity of this production lies just a bit too far out of reach. It shows us the second star to the right, but never successfully navigates us straight on till morning. The refrain-like repetition of several scenes grows thin and occasionally heavy-handed, and the disjointed plot line dizzies and disorients. Ultimately, the production grounds Peter Pan in the everyday like it grounds its title character from flight, a process that bogs the story down within the production’s opaque framework.
Peter Pan runs to December 23. More production info can be found here.