Peter Panopticon



Show #53: Peter Pan, threesixty˚, May 9.

The flight to Neverland. Photo by Kevin Berne

By Sam Hurwitt

The U.S. premiere of the threesixty˚ production of Peter Pan in San Francisco feels very much like an event. The hit London production of last year has pitched its large tent at Ferry Park, right next to Embarcadero Plaza and the Vaillancourt Fountain at Justin Herman Plaza. The tent itself is really the star attraction, equipped with a 360-degree projection system that plunges the audience into the world of J.M Barrie’s 1904 play and 1911 novel about the boy who wouldn’t grow up.

All in all, Tanya Ronder’s adaptation is a very straightforward version of Peter Pan, taking no great liberties with the story. It’s neither the 1953 Disney movie version nor the 1954 Broadway musical but the slightly more melancholy story on which both are based, pared down a bit but hitting (and sometimes rushing through) all the basic plot points.

It’s sort of kid-friendly in the sense of being a familiar children’s story in the first place, but not so much that you don’t have (bloodless) throat-slitting, gunshots, Wendy shot down with an arrow, and Tiger Lily doing an uncomfortably lewd dance for Peter’s pleasure.  Tinker Bell’s frequent exclamations of “Silly ass!” are a big hit with the kids, if not with the parents who had to contend with endless repetitions of that phrase later on.

The real draw is the computer-animated backgrounds projected overhead all around the audience. The flight over London is particularly dazzling, as the landscape whizzes by and the flying children appear to dart under arches and around obstacles. It’s also somewhat interesting to watch the background go from the surface of the water to underwater as the boys go from flying to swimming. Most of the time, however, the characters are in one place or another rather than whizzing from place to place, and the scenery rests on a pleasant cove or Kensington Gardens skyline or underground cavern. When at rest the virtual world is rather reminiscent of the scenery in the computer game Myst, which was pretty cool 17 years ago.

The spectacle certainly doesn’t end there. The children fly right through their beds, and set pieces rotate up from and down into the round stage in the center of the tent. Aerial silk performers shimmy up suspended fabric as mermaids, and puppeteers walk alongside Nana (the children’s canine nanny) and some unknown Neverland breed of bird who looks a bit like the Do-Do from an early Porky Pig cartoon (and nothing at all like a real dodo bird).

The best thing in the whole show is the crocodile. The giant croc that ate Captain Hook’s hand and is just waiting to finish the meal is represented by a marvelous skeletal contraption propelled and manipulated by two people sitting inside it, with the telltale ticking clock that haunts Hook’s nightmares resting visibly beside them in the belly of the mammoth reptile.

Tinker Bell comes in a close second. Itxaso Moreno is marvelous as the tempestuous and often spiteful fairy, which she plays as a rough-and-tumble tomboy spoiling for a fight. One thing this play really drives home is that children are jerks, with no real conscience or moral compass, and that learning responsibility and empathy are part of growing up. Peter never grows up, so he never learns that lesson, and anyone can be close to him one moment and completely forgotten the next. As a fairy, Tinker Bell doesn’t even have that kernel of humanity to nurture and grow.  She’s attached to Peter and is willing to sacrifice herself for him, but she’s also only too happy to sacrifice anyone who comes between her and him. Dynamic and funny, Moreno’s Tink is a delight.

The rest of the cast gives solid, workmanlike performances that capture the characters credibly without being particularly memorable. Jonathan Hyde has a deep, resonant voice and courtly poise as Captain Hook and Mr. Darling (or as Hook might prefer, “good form”), and Nate Fallows conveys the crowing cockiness of Peter Pan, if not the charisma.

Bay Area dancer Heidi Buehler plays the often problematic character of Tiger Lily, an early 20th-century British child’s idea of a Native American princess, too stereotypical to be tied to any particular tribe. (Not that the pirates are any less stereotyped, but it’s far more troublesome when it’s an ethnic thing.) And indeed, Tiger Lily speaks in fractured Pidgin English, gets captured a lot and does a sexy, contorting dance (choreographed by Fleur Darkin) for the oblivious Peter Pan. Buehler dances well, but this part plays considerably differently in San Francisco than it might in London, and the best that can be said for it is that it’s short and quickly moves on to the next thing.

The actors playing children aren’t necessarily smaller or younger-looking than the pirates or other adults, which requires some suspension of disbelief on the part of the audience. Abby Ford has a tiny, squeaky voice as Wendy Darling, the eldest of the three siblings Peter carries off to Neverland, and her brothers Michael (David Poynor) and John (Arthur Wilson) quickly get lost, or assimilated if you like, among Peter’s gang, the Lost Boys.

There are a whole lot of pirates and Lost Boys running around, which makes the action-packed fight scenes choreographed by Nicholas Hall seem busy and hard to follow. With a whole lot of the requisite flying around on wires, Ben Harrison’s staging is generally pleasing but sometimes feels rushed and slow at the same time, like going through the motions.

Comparisons between productions aren’t all that useful when you haven’t seen them, but watching all the wire work, puppetry and CGI in this production makes me think that I’ve seen a lot of stage versions of Peter Pan in my day, including a couple tours of the Broadway version both as a kid and as an adult and the mesmerizing Mabou Mines version that Berkeley Rep brought to Berkeley High’s Little Theatre back in 1999. But somehow with all its razzle-dazzle, this production didn’t have nearly the magic or the humor of something like the Peter & Wendy adaptation that writer-director Kevin T. Morales did for Lafayette’s Town Hall Theatre back in 2005. That one couldn’t have been lower tech or lower budget, with the flying done on tippy toes and Tinker Bell played by a golden glove on an actress’s hand. But to this day whenever we’re in Gualala and pass by Pirates Drive, my wife and I remember the elaborate secret handshake done by the pirates in the Town Hall version and hiss like they did, “Piratesssss.”  It’s hard to imagine anything in the threesixty˚ production sticking with us in the same way.

Peter Pan plays through July 4 at the threesixty˚ Theatre, Ferry Park, San Francisco.

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  1. 5 / 22 / 2010 8:03 pm

    Yeah, seeing this production of Peter Pan pretty much drove home to me that Kevin Morales is a genius. And the threesixty folks are… not.





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