Imagination Takes Flight

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Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson’s novel Peter and the Starcatchers was marvelously adapted for the stage by Rick Elice.

One of my favorite Christmas traditions from my childhood was receiving a book from my parents to read each Christmas Eve. In 2004 I received a book that I had been eyeing for months– Peter and the Starcatchers, a prequel to J.M. Barrie’s classic Peter Pan. The book is an explanation of sorts for how Peter and the Lost Boys got to Neverland, how Peter learned to fly, how he met Tinkerbell, how Captain Hook became his nemesis.

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A prequel to J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, Peter and the Starcatchers is the story of Peter before he reaches Neverland.

I’m sure that Peter Pan purists are gasping in shock and anger now. But for a twelve-year-old girl who had loved the original book all her life and was on the cusp of growing up, Peter and the Starcatchers became an instant favorite. I did not want to grow up. And so I clung to a funny novel written by Dave Barry (yes, that Dave Barry) and Ridley Pearson. I read the whole book on Christmas Eve, and then read it again the next day.

That book, though perhaps not of the highest literary merit, still holds a special place in my heart because it met me where I was when I read it for the first time. In the spring of 2013, Clare and I were lucky enough to see the Broadway adaptation, Peter and the Starcatcher. The play was masterfully adapted for the stage by Rick Elice.

The plot follows a group of orphans– Ted, Prentiss, and a boy who was orphaned too early to remember his name– as they are shipped off on a boat called the Neverland to become helpers to the evil king of a land called Rundoon. The Boy soon runs into another passenger on the ship, a girl named Molly.

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The Boy (Adam Chanler-Berat) meets Molly (Celia Keenan-Bolger).

Molly has a secret. She is an apprentice Starcatcher– a person who works to protect the magical Starstuff that falls to earth and keep it from the hands of evil men who will use it to try and take over the world (Napoleon and Genghis Khan are used as examples). Molly’s father is on another ship with a trunk filled with Starstuff. Or, at least, that is what he thinks. It turns out that the trunk is actually on board the Neverland, and Molly will need the Boy’s help to keep it safe from the evil clutches of a nefarious pirate named Black Stache.

What results is a wild and glorious romp as Black Stache and the passengers on the Neverland play a game of cat and mouse. Verbal sparring also abounds, Black Stache chews scenery, and the audience laughs uproariously. Rick Elice’s writing is hilarious and oftentimes irreverent in the best of ways.

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Christian Borle won a Tony Award for Best Performance by a Featured Actor for his portrayal of a familiar (if two-handed) pirate named Black Stache.

But the main reason that this has become my favorite play of all time is that it makes me use my imagination. The set is beautiful, but is utilitarian and sparse. At first I was skeptical, because the scenery looked more like what I would have found in one of my high school theater productions. But then, a piece of rope became a door, a room, a wave. A row of human bodies became a hallway and a ship rocking back and force. Frisbees and penant flags became the ghastly face of a very hungry crocodile. A yellow rubber glove became a familiar fairy. Green umbrellas became a thick jungle.

The characters allow the audience to think back on their own childhoods. Molly is an incredible character. She has one foot in childhood– she is curious and competitive– but also has one foot in adulthood– she takes on a great amount of responsibility to do her duty and protect the Starstuff. She is at times bossy and confident, at others vulnerable, and is always precocious and willing to learn. I love Molly, and wish that every girl who is starting to go through adolescence could see this show. “Oh, this training bra is so uncomfortable!” she complains at one point. But she never loses sight of her goal. Molly is feminine without wearing a princess dress, and is strong without ever picking up a weapon. Her beauty and strength lie within her character.

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The minimal set allows audience members’ imagination to soar, just as the Starstuff allows a cat (use your imagination) to take flight.

The Boy also reminds the audience of what it is like to be a child sometimes. He has no control over his life. He is an orphan who is mistreated in the most Dickensian of ways, and hungers for love and acceptance. He feels utterly powerless at the beginning of the play. “I hate grownups!” is his constant refrain. But after he meets Molly, the Boy begins to see that he has choices to make. He has the choice to save his own skin or try to help Molly save the Starstuff. He has the choice to do good or join the band of pirates after he meets Black Stache. And, ultimately, he has the choice to become the flawed hero we all know, or to grow up.

I have to admit, I cried the first time that I saw the show. The bittersweet ending brought me back to the Christmas Eve where I first read Peter and the Starcatchers. It brought me back to the frustrations and joys of childhood, to the beauty and vulnerability of adolescence.

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Molly and the Boy

This show means the world to me. And for Christmas this year, I gave my dad tickets to see Peter and the Starcatcher at the Kennedy Center. We laughed through the play, and I cried again at the end. For we all have to grow up someday. But, as this play shows, we can all relive the joys and pains of childhood when we create things.

If you are interested in seeing the play, you can check out tour dates at this website.

If the play is not touring near you, fear not! An annotated script of the play Peter and the Starcatchers is available here!

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