By Sami Zahringer.
“Peter and the Starcatcher,” now playing at Ojai Art Center Theater, might at first glance seem like a play whose primary audience is children, and children will enjoy its antic, pantomime vibe and physical silliness for sure. But it is also a witty, literate, verbal playground that adults will relish. Aside from a cheerfully flatulent deck-hand called Alf whose occasional netherland trumpets throw his fellow boat passengers into paroxysm of distress, the play is never vulgar but over the heads of the children fly a vast flock of cultural references and linguistic sleights of hand that only adults will appreciate. The play combines sheer silliness sharp wit and knowing asides, in a ratio best described as Monty Pythonesque. Last Sunday afternoon, with the rain hammering outside, this production of the 5-time Tony-winning Broadway show made for some of the best belly laughs this reviewer has seen from an audience in a while. A stand-out moment occurs at the start of Act II with a screamingly funny cross-dressed mermaid song.
The play tells the story Peter Pan became Peter Pan in a new take on prequel to the beloved J.M. Barrie’s tale “Peter Pan.” We learn the madcap back-story to the Lost Boys, Neverland, the ticking crocodile, and the one-handed pirate of the story we grew up with. It is delivered in proper story-telling fashion with different members of the cast occasionally breaking character to address the audience. The effect is that we are immediately drawn in and feel complicit with the actors in their performances in a way that adds an additional level of ironic and anachronistic humor to the show. If you haven’t had a chance to read the program, you might not immediately realize that some of the main characters also play crew members, sailors, mermaids, and members of a tribe called The Mollusks. It doesn’t take long to figure it out though, then the play takes full wind and propels the audience across the high seas on giddy waves of adventure, rousing songs, and a feeling of cast and audience all being in on the silliness together.
Ezra Eells plays the lowly, orphaned, nameless boy, and manages the journey from the moody Boy to the high-spirited Peter Pan with flair. Sara Mitchell plays Molly, a trainee star-catcher who sees something in the Boy’s eye that winds up in his becoming Peter Pan. Mitchell channels pinafored, whip-smart, earnest, good old British decency while accompanying her father on a secret mission for the queen. Star-dust is bits of stars fallen to earth and possesses strange, transformative powers that are dangerous in the wrong hands. Molly, her father, Lord Astor (a magisterial Shayne Bourbon) and her nanny, Mrs Bumbrake (played by Aaron Gardner with buttoned-up sauciness) are on their way to the island of Rundoon to dispose of star-dust in the world’s hottest volcano, Mount Jalapeño.
Confusion is sewn right from the start when one Bill Slank (a dastardly Daniel Mitchell) switches the queen’s “treasure” (the stardust) with a decoy trunk of sand and loads the former on his slow-moving old ship, the Neverland. Meanwhile the sand is loaded on to the speedy “Wasp” captained by Captain Scott, (Len Klaif) - later to become Scott of the Antarctic - and the two ships set sail. Three orphans are sold to Land, thinking they are to be helpers to the King o Rundoon, Fighting Prawn (a very funny Sean Mason) but in reality a darker fate is planned for them. Colin Summers is the petulant, cowardly Prentiss, Bodhi Bourbon the food-obsessed Ted, and the third boy will become Peter.
Enter the pirates. Scene-stealing Brandon Fichera is outrageously hilarious as their charismatic, campy, sneering leader, Black Stash (later to be Captain Hook) and Adam Womack gets to have some fabulous cross-dressing fun as his side-kick, the loyal but dim Smee.
Eventually, they all reach the island where they are captured by the Mollusk tribe who try to feed them to Mr Grin, the crocodile. But why are the fish suddenly turning into mermaids? And what is in the underground lake that Peter falls into?
Director Hanna Mitchell and her team use lots of ingenious rope manipulation to help set the various scenes, and there is some clever work with model ships to let us know which one we’re on at any one time.
This is a clever, madcap romp from start to finish with a high-energy cast delivering the delicious hoot-worthy tale of some the most famous characters in children’s literature. It’s a terrific start to Ojai ACT’s new season and well-worth your time.
“Peter and The Starcatcher” runs through February 19th at Ojai ACT, 113 S. Montgomery St. Ojai. Fri. and Sat. at 7:30pm, Su at 2pm. Tickets are $18 for adults; $15 for students, seniors, and Art Center members. They are available at www.OjaiACT.org or by calling (805) 640-8797