In a world where quotations of and allusions to pop culture abound, Rick Elice's Peter and the Starcatcher provides a postmodern twist on the well-known story of Peter Pan. Sitting in the audience in the presence of such fantastic performers and beautiful staging telling a sharply creative approach to the story, I was unfortunately reminded of how harmful certain aspects of Broadway tropes have become. My enjoyable experience of the story was riddled with cringe-worthy moments including obligatory jokes about the audience paying for parking (if I had a dime for every time I've heard a reference like this, I could pay for their parking) and some very problematic representations of gender that threatened to overtake the actual story.
I will start with all of the positive aspects of the show, which was thoroughly entertaining. Christian Borle, who plays the effeminate pirate "Black Stache," absolutely steals the show with a bravura performance. His comic timing is absurdly excellent, and every time he was on stage, I could not wait to see what he would do next.
Borle is well supported by an all-around excellent cast. Celia Keenan-Bolger, the lone woman in the cast (though not always the only "woman" on stage), plays "Mary Astor," a 13-year-old girl who gets tied up in one of her father's (Rick Holmes) missions. Keenan-Bolger is very believable as this spunky and hyper-intelligent 13-year-old who is trying to navigate both puberty and pirates. Last but not least, we have Adam Chanler-Berat, who plays the "Boy," and who also lends not only a good performance, but also a fantastic sense of ensemble playing. He seems to be the central figure the rest of the cast needs to relate to, and he plays this role perfectly.
The invisible stars of this show are directors Roger Reese and Alex Timbers and scenic designer Donyale Werle. The beautiful stage composition is a credit to these artists, as well as movement coach Steven Hoggett. The staging, though spectacular, is also specifically anti-spectacular in the Broadway sense. In other words, the pre-Broadway roots of the show (it began at New York Theatre Workshop) have been maintained in the beautifully human ways in which people and objects move across the stage. The spectacle is created not by machines but by the actors themselves, which is exciting to witness.
However, parts of Rick Elice's script are where I take issue with this production. The first act especially seems to be so formulaic that I actually had trouble getting past the shtick and into the story, though this was greatly changed in the second act. One of the main, and oddly dominating tropes of this play, is a long and elaborate joke of male effeminacy. Both through the cross-cast role of nanny Mrs. Bumbrake, played by Arnie Burton, and the numerous instances of jokes, gags, and allusions to womanly men, with obvious questions about sexuality (Black Stache is even called a "nancy").
I am not saying that cross-dressing can't be funny, but I am saying that it is not a joke in and of itself. It is also simply old hat to laugh at a male character who seems emasculated. Haven't we moved past this? If it is news to you that this has been happening for decades -- just read or watch The Celluloid Closet, which looks at the representations of gay and lesbian characters in movies. There is special attention paid to a stock character called "the sissy" whose job was to make us laugh upon appearance. I was simply confused as to why a show with such a smart idea felt the need to resort to a series of one-liners and cheap gag laughs, when it has such truly gifted actors.
The most successful part of Peter and the Starcatcher for me was in fact when they let Christian Borle simply play the audience. In the second act there are a few moments where his physical comedy and delivery had the entire audience laughing hysterically. This is because he was able to make a comment on his character that was more than a one-line gag at the character's expense. Borle's performance alone is worth seeing this show, as his star power is impressive. However, I would challenge you to be mindful of exactly what it is that the show wants you to find funny.
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