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Magic in a Trunk

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Alex Timbers and Roger Rees don't exactly sound like a match made in heaven. I feel like when I heard the two were co-directing a piece, my reaction was something akin to: "No. Really? No." But the oddest of odd couples created a magical work, Peter and the Starcatcher, currently playing at Broadway's Brooks Atkinson Theater.

"Roger and I obviously come from completely different backgrounds," Timbers said, "but we have kind of the same taste. That's the key. You could have two directors, both New Yorkers, both from the same school, but if they don't have the same taste, co-directing a show is going to be a nightmare."

It's hard to describe the end result of their collaboration. Peter and the Starcatcher is not for everyone. It is a play with music, reminiscent of pantomime, but with less buffoonery. It has a DIY aesthetic that reminded me of the original staging of The Fantasticks, but would likely remind most people of the type of show that children put on for their families (except, of course, a much more polished version).

The show began five-and-a-half years ago in a barn in Williamstown -- at that time, playwright Rick Elice was not yet on board, it was simply Timbers, Rees and dramaturg Ken Cerniglia grabbing props out of a shed and putting on their own show.

Elice, best known for Jersey Boys (which Timbers worked on as an assistant director), stepped in around the second workshop, after some key decisions had already been made (such as where each act would take place and the number of orphans the play would feature). Timbers explained: "Rick could write into what was there; often as a director you just get a script, here Rick was writing into the physical ideas that we had. The play was built around the staging and aesthetic. We've always felt this is the version of Peter and the Starcatcher that would happen in 20 years at the Roundabout when some smart British director deconstructs it. That is what we wanted to do from the beginning."

That is why, despite the trip from the Berkshires barn to the La Jolla Playhouse to New York Theater Workshop and now to Broadway, Peter and the Starcatcher has by all accounts maintained its original feel. There is still a feeling the story is created in an audience member's imagination -- the ships aren't real ships, people play doors, and a good amount is done with rope. It's hard to pinpoint one person specifically responsible for this aesthetic, certainly the whole creative team had a part in making it work. Timbers noted that Disney Theatrical Group president Thomas Schumacher "wanted to do the show in a very DIY fashion, in contrast to some of [Disney's] other recent shows." Timbers, Rees and Cerniglia also pictured it that way from the very beginning. Elice added moments that lent themselves to this type of theatricality. And huge kudos must go to set designer Donyale Werle (who previously worked with Timbers on Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and Dance Dance Revolution) for making it all look improvisational, but never cheap.

Peter and the Starcatcher is about magic. It is about whether you can picture Peter drowning even though you never see water. It is about whether you believe Christian Borle is Captain Hook. It's about how star stuff makes an alligator grow tremendously and a boy stay forever a boy. It's about whether you can picture being in a magical world, whether you can envision what star stuff would do to you. In very Peter Pan fashion, Timbers thinks the enchanted dust might make him fly. "I've always dreamed of flying," the director stated. "I love architecture and I love looking at the New York skyline from above. But I also have this deathly fear of heights. I think star stuff would make me fly, but at the same time I'd be terrified of hovering. So it would be kind of an ironic gift."

Nine Tony nominations later, the play Peter and the Starcatcher, based on a book with a very, very slightly different name, seems like it may have been sprinkled with some star stuff along the way. Nothing to be scared of there.