A “Peter Pan” at odds with its own youth

Lookingglass Theatre’s history of aerial productions (its tag phrase is, literally, “theatre without a net”) is ideally suited for a remounting of Amanda Dehnert‘s new adaptation of Scottish playwright J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up. The first incarnation of Peter Pan (A Play) was as a Northwestern University student production last February. While it has been thoroughly refined from the original 35-member cast to a baker’s dozen for the very different Water Tower space, it has retained the youthfulness of the original, which is in equal parts the production’s strength and weakness.

The play opens with a group of youngsters taking turns reading from Barrie’s book and vying for parts. The production pays careful attention to the literary themes of the play: namely storytelling, which is a curious approach given that the popularity of Peter Pan (and most audience knowledge of it) stems mainly from its cinematic productions. The staging is heavy in metatheatric emphasis. There is throwing about of the actual book throughout the production to signal the start and stop of the act of storytelling–a nice touch, but at times almost too self-aware.

The set is very minimalist, pandering to the major theme of a child’s imagination to fill in the rest. With the number of pulleys hanging about, I felt that the flying option was a bit underused for the amount of costuming dedicated to it. The costumes themselves, by Melissa Torchia, are kept sparse, with only hints of a pajama-like shape in order to keep the harnesses exposed at all times. However, the final fight scene is amazing. Choreographed by Matt Hawkins, the different levels of movement–on the ground and in the air between swirling platforms meant to serve as ships–relays a sense of chaos wherein everything is at stake and yet not. You are still aware of your neighbor patron, gasping at the swashbuckling near-misses along with you.

A majority of the cast members are student actors taken from the production at Northwestern last year. Lookingglass filled in the rest of the ensemble with more experienced performers, including Molly Brennan, Thomas Cox, Raymond Fox, and Matt Holzfeind, among others. This created a functional ensemble that could get the job done, but the lack of balance is at times obvious. As the lead, Ryan Nunn does a solid job of holding down the fort, so to speak, and creates a darkly cherubic Pan that is equal parts exciting and frustrating. The Lost Boys and Darling Children carry with them the weight that accompanies the sense of being a forgotten child. This is created by the many well-crafted moments of calm wandering about the stage used to intersperse the capricious action of Pan and the pirates. In light of all these qualities, the script’s lack of narrative focus works to expose the ensemble’s imbalance–it feels like the professionals work most the time to prop up the students rather than work together.

This production is definitely PG-13 and not targeted toward the younger set. Parents seem to be ignoring this as there were far too many 3- to 6-year-olds in my audience, but this may be due in part to the Halloween weekend. It is interested in playing up the dark elements of the story, particularly Pan’s disfunctionality, progeny, and problematic uniqueness. The script works hard to address who or what is Pan, and what he should represent: what Pan believes to be true becomes true even if it isn’t the truth. This thematic anchor seems to be Dehnert’s attempt at creating an unidealized Pan that pulls out the problems of our idealizing childhood, and laying it out for her audiences to see. This topical focus however results in a lack of narrative directionality in the play; one is never quite sure where we are headed on this trip with Pan.

That said, this production isn’t concerned with being critically evocative. It will run all the way up into January, targeting the holiday audiences that will break over Chicago’s Michigan Avenue soon. Critical appeal is simply not the goal. From this critical, adult perspective, Peter Pan (A Play) is not quite for kids, but also too youthful and underdeveloped in other ways. On the other hand, in my experience simply as a playgoer, I was never aware of time passing, and was completely taken up with the fiction before me from moment to moment, and surprised when intermission was announced.

For me this experience in fact mimics the progression and awareness of time for children: “heartless” and unaware of time or its consequences, the production places you in that uncaring and child-like consciousness rather than aesthetically catering to it. As a point of contrast, the Macy’s department store windows across the street from the theatre were already decked out for Christmas when we left (skipping Thanksgiving attire entirely). In a season where greed and glut are masked but glittering consumer trappings, Peter Pan (A Play) may be the most honest thing you see on Michigan Avenue this winter.

UPDATE 21 NOV 2010: This Sunday’s shows have been cancelled due to an injury to Peter Pan, whose understudy will be going on for the rest of this week. For more, click here. Lookingglass Theatre’s history of aerial productions (its tag phrase is, literally, “theatre without a net”) is ideally suited for a remounting of Amanda Dehnert’s new adaptation of Scottish playwright J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up. The first incarnation of Peter Pan (A Play) was as a Northwestern University student production last February. It has been thoroughly refined from the original 35-member cast to a baker’s dozen for the very different Water Tower space. It is this youthfulness that is in equal parts the production’s strength and weakness.

A vexed “Iphigenia and Other Daughters” at Krannert

In the university’s latest theatre department production, Iphigenia and Other Daughters, the only one who isn’t irrationally upset is Iphigenia herself. Ellen McLaughlin’s play recoups the statuses of several women from ancient Hellenic tragedy who are only referenced by the storytellers, and do not have voices of their own in the great arch of ancient epic. This seems to be the narrative kernel: the marginality of women, especially daughters, in the classical texts mirrors the actual marginality of these women in the lives of their husbands, fathers, and sons.

The difficulty with a work like this is to strike a balance in emotional display, to find an emotional temperature that will still resonate with the audience despite the archaic source texts. Perhaps due to the playtext itself or to the fact that director, Robert Quinlan, is male, the play turns on a very angry feminist bent–something certainly encouraged textually but unproductively overt in the execution. We have four main actresses that are the strongest women in the MFA graduate program at the moment. Despite their strength in previous productions, here they are angry from beginning to end without variation or crescendo. Their anger (at being women but also for the things their status has forced them to commit) is flat in its one-dimensionality, which they all replicate. Even Carley Cornelius (Chrysothemis), who brought her “A-game” to both He and She and The Crucible last year, seemed to be still looking for a sense of her character.

All four seemed to bleed together, indistinguishable in their performances, and the only thing that seemed to set them apart was the most effeminate thing on stage, Samuel Ashdown (Orestes). His meditation on trauma and its reenactments in the guise of revenge was far more interesting than the heavy feminist angle of the ignored domesticity of women. However, this element of historical social trauma is introduced late and goes by so quickly that you can hardly catch that the topic of revenge killings has become much more nuanced. There seemed a greater interest in portraying Orestes’ status as a victim of masculinity.

The set was truly beautiful and the actors engaged dramatically with it by pulling, tearing, or completely moving the giant swaths of white cheesecloth-like material and reshaping their own hyper-domestic spaces for each act. The costuming of the four main women were disparate, ensuring that the audience would be completely disassociated from any specific time or place. This was perhaps a good move considering our own historically disconnected relationship with the ancient Homeric epic. I have seen more bad Sophocles and Seneca performed than good, which perhaps reflects a general performative problem we have: we simply don’t know what to do with Hellenic tragedy anymore.

The dissociative dress and copious dramaturgical notes served as an appropriate comment on this, intentionally or no. A good example of this was the depiction of the chorus of girls, priestesses to the goddess Artemis. The excessive girlish signs, in unison, were so disingenuous and served no noticeable purpose but to represent complicity in the cycles of revenge. They worked to provide Iphigenia with a secondary audience to the one she was already performing. Instead of moving and meditating on the plot and theme of the play, the chorus simply worked to further alienate me from the subject matter. As a playgoer, as a woman, the predominate emotion I felt throughout the play was that of alienation, culminating in a profound sense of emptiness by the end. The production ends with Iphigenia poised as a statue being held up by red ribbons symbolic of blood and restraint. She is a literal pillar of peace, and Orestes lies unrequited in anything at her feet.

In a positive light, this play is interested in the hopeless unproductivity and waste of revenge, that kind of malice that has no end. That I should walk away feeling empty was appropriate, being made to mimic the emotions of waste and emptiness that the play was itself dealing with. The characters speak in narrative paragraphs rather than engaging with one another; instead of watching three acts it felt more like each character was performing their own micro-drama but sharing the same orbit.

Domesticity generally suggests a sense of closeness and interdependence between females, left alone in a homogeneous environment, but here they rend each other apart for things they did for one another. However, it was not the subject matter or the text that I think I was responding, too, but the stilted and over-angry representations. I didn’t know with whom to sympathize or what I was supposed to be angry about, especially since all of the men are dead before we ever meet them. Revenge is not an emotion everyday contemporary playgoers deal. Trauma, on the other hand, certainly is, and would have provided a far more productive emotional anchor. The playwright and performers seem to equally complicit in this militant need to comment on the void of representation of feminine domesticity. McLaughlin is so entrenched in the Homeric genre, and the performers were not–perhaps by no fault of their own, but by virtue of being so out of time and out of reach.