From Neverland to hell with Peter Pan: playwright Jeremy Menekseoglu talks about his new trilogy | Bleader

From Neverland to hell with Peter Pan: playwright Jeremy Menekseoglu talks about his new trilogy

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Jeremy Menekseoglu caresses his stump as Captain Hook
  • Jeremy Menekseoglu caresses his stump as Captain Hook
No less an authority than Tony Adler of the Chicago Reader has called Jeremy Menekseoglu "one of the most ambitious, prolific, original, and gifted playwrights in Chicago." Menekseoglu is the presiding spirit at Dream Theatre in Pilsen, where he writes, directs, and acts in practically everything that goes onstage. His enormous, often surreal output ranges from short studies of sexual anomie in Texas to an epic three-part reinvention of the Oresteia that climaxes at the dead center of hell. But Menekseoglu's great theme is the trauma of childhood. More and more, as in recent shows like The Grisly/Glorious Adventure of Christopher Robin, Winnie-the-Pooh, and Billy Moon and The Devilish Children and the Civilizing Process, he's taken to anatomizing classic children's stories as a way to get at their horrific underpinnings.

Now he's doing it to Peter Pan. In Menekseoglu's new trilogy, Peter Pan's Shadow, Pan is a much more dangerous, manipulative character than the headstrong boy J.M. Barrie created. The dark consequences of his desire to evade maturity include a mother gone mad, an anguished Tinker Bell, and a baby sister who's been reduced, quite literally, to a shadow. The first installment opened in March; the second opens tonight at Dream Theatre, 556 W. 18th, and runs through June 10.

I’ve only seen the first piece of the trilogy, so you’re going to have to tell me where we go from there.

Kinda difficult. I guess what’s important to say right off the bat is that this isn’t like the traditional Peter Pan at all.

It’s got all the elements, though.

Right. But the famous Peter Pan story, we go ahead and skip that. Part two takes place after the events of the Peter Pan that we all know and love. [It’s set] inside the crocodile, where Captain Hook has become trapped. And the Shadow has become trapped in there with him. She has one major goal, and that is to get out and kill Peter Pan.

And I don’t blame her.

I don’t blame her, either. The story becomes more and more touching as [the trilogy goes] on. The first part sets up a lot of things. You see the creation of Neverland. You meet Peter Pan’s sister. You see the creation of his shadow. You start to get a hint of the really tenuous relationship between Peter Pan and Tinker Bell.

And Hook losing his hand.

You get to see the creation of Captain Hook. But I think, on a deeper level, the stories are really about childhood, and how children react when they’ve been abandoned by their parents, ignored by their parents, don’t have any parents. The plays have all these elements about children desperately trying to grow up in a world where they don’t have any rules and they don’t have any structure.

But Peter could’ve had rules and structures and parents if he’d just stayed in his pram.

Yes, he could’ve. But because he breaks free and decides he’s going to ignore his parents and ignore the idea of growing up, he never gets a chance to understand who he is and what he really wants from his life. There’s a moment in part one where Tinker Bell is talking to him and says she’s just waiting for him to grow up a few more years before she’ll make him immortal and able to fly and give him everything that his heart desires. He just needs to grow up a little bit more. I don’t know if I should go ahead and say why. Do you want me to say why?

I got the sense that sexual maturity was what she wanted out of him.

She’s so desperately in love with him, which is a very different kind of love and desire than what we usually see with Peter Pan. In a lot of versions Tinker Bell is just sort of mean, and she gets Wendy shot at one point, with an arrow. But in this one you see just how much [Tinker Bell and Peter] need each other, and how the two of them can’t function without one another.

We also got rid of the whole idea of her being a tiny little pixie. She’s the same size as Peter here. They get in these big scraps together. They’re sort of like two warring best friends—but she has this large secret, of course, that she’s deeply in love with him.

In part two, we actually see why she’s the type of fairy she is. We go on and learn about these two different types of fairies. There are the fairies that we already know, and then there are the caterwaul fairies, and what they are is—a normal fairy is created by a child’s first laugh breaking into a million pieces and then reforming. A caterwaul fairy is created from a child’s first cry, first real weeping or depression. And that doesn’t break into a million pieces. It kind of oozes out like sludge. And that forms a caterwaul fairy. They’re much larger and also more magical. Normal fairies have some magic, but it doesn’t really do much. Caterwaul fairies are probably the most magical fairies in the world because they need more magic in order to make themselves happy—which, of course, doesn’t work.

Thinking back on all the things I’ve seen or read that you’ve written, it’s never just about children but about family. Family is not a happy territory.

Right. That’s something I’ve always taken very seriously: the way that we grow up. One thing that I learned when I started telling these types of stories is that they can bond an audience with the show in a way that I wasn’t really aware could happen. When you start to tell these stories of childhood memories or childhood abandonment or loss or having a bad relationship with your mother or father, you discover that very few people reveal that type of truth to themselves. It’s something that we spend so much of our lives trying to hide. So when you see it happening in front of you, you can either try to ignore it—fight it, put those walls up even more—or there’s a type of tension that you feel, that something is happening that’s letting you express the feelings you have. It’s a really wonderful feeling, bringing the audience and the show together like that.

That explains why you want the audience to have the stories, but why do you want to tell them?

Wow, how deep into that should I get?

As deep as you feel comfortable.

We all have our own personal tragedies and our own horrors growing up. I grew up with two sisters, and what happened to me as the middle child, my father was putting all his affections on my older sister, my little sister was born—you know, the same old story. The youngest child is born, she gets lavished with things. I got stuck somewhere in the middle and felt just terrible about it. I know the story isn’t really that new, this feeling of abandonment and feeling ignored. And so, for me, the beginning of any writing I did as a child was always trying to bridge some sort of gap between myself and my father. I’m at a different point in my life now. Theater isn’t therapy. But these are stories that I’m compelled to tell. I have to talk about this stuff. It’s what I know and what I feel. . .

I try to make [the characters’] problems and drama more extreme than mine were, or anyone’s are. A lot of my characters go down as deep into hell as you possibly can, and then get themselves back out again. Part three of this trilogy, Peter Pan and Tinker Bell, was originally called Peter Pan’s Redemption. I tried everything in my damn power to save that kid, and I couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t do it. After part two, Wendy is gone, and Neverland is in complete ruins. Once Captain Hook died and Wendy left, all the pirates left because they had nothing to do anymore. Then all the mermaids started starving to death because they’d been eating the pirates. Once the buffalo were gone the Indians all left, and once the Indians left the birds had no one to worship them, so they all left. So there’s nothing left on this wreck of an island but Peter Pan and Tinker Bell and whatever other person is sort of cast off and left alone. The first person they come across is [Hook’s factotum] Smee, who had nowhere to go and nothing to do because none of the pirates respected him and the only person who ever needed him was gone. Peter Pan wants to recreate Neverland just so Wendy will come back to him. Wendy doesn’t really complete him in a love sort of sense, but having someone around to worship him allows him to do whatever he wants.

So you don’t see her as a mother figure for him.

Oh no, not at all. I know that in the [original] story she leaves because it’s time to grow up—"time to go back, our parents miss us"—and I see that as well. But I also saw it as she recognizes [Peter’s] emotional immaturity, and she recognizes that he’s not going to change, and it’s not anyone’s responsibility to change you.

Is that what you mean when you say you tried to save him and you couldn’t?

No. That one’s a surprise.

I think that a lot of people, when they hear a writer say, “I tried this, but the character wouldn’t let me”—I don’t think they really understand that. Why don’t you have unlimited power to do what you want with your characters?

Characters themselves have a life that they want to lead. They want to make their own mistakes, they want to have their own adventures, they want to do all of these things. . . . When I write, I let the characters embody themselves, I let them do what they want. I never know the ending of a show when I start to write it. If I know the ending, I probably won’t write it. I like to create strong characters, I like to give them strong dialogue, and then I just sort of let them see what happens. Of course I may get an idea for the next scene, or there’s a climax that you really just can’t wait to write. But when you get to it sometimes the climax will change, sometimes it will be something else. I guess I treat my characters like some people would treat their children. You try to direct them, you try to do what’s best for them, but they’re going to do what they need to do. They’re going to go through their own tragedies.

I noticed you dedicated the Peter Pan plays to [wife and fellow company member] Anna Menekseoglu.

Most of the things I write I dedicate to Anna. Her support through everything is so incredible. I must be like an alcoholic when I’m writing. You go through these periods of elation, you go through these periods of horrific depression, you want to start throwing things against the wall. It’s a mess. To have someone not only put up with you but be supportive of it—. The roles that she gets to play in these things are something she really wants to do. She really wants to help with everything. I can’t love her enough for that.

Anna Menekseoglu as the Shadow
  • Anna Menekseoglu as the Shadow

She’s playing the Shadow. How do envision the Shadow as a physical being?

At times I pictured an actual shadow and at times I pictured someone who’s more like Wendy.

What does that look like?

Well, when the shadow is created, we do it with costume design. She becomes sort of in the background of Peter so when he moves in certain directions she mirrors them. . . . When she finally escapes, she severs the bond between the two of them. [Later] we see the Shadow being caught and sewn back on to him. It’s a kind of torture for her.

That is the most horrific thing: to be sewn back onto this guy. To be, first, enchanted to the point where you’re deprived of speech and then to be sewn back on to this person you detest.

And everything gets steadily worse for everybody. Because in the scene where Neverland is being created, Tinker Bell is pretty much forced to go and sprinkle fairy dust over everything. What happens is they all become immortal, although no one seems to realize it yet. For example, in part three there’s this mermaid who Tiger Lilly kills—cuts off her head, and they eat the rest of her. And the next thing you know, they have this talking mermaid head that they carry around with them. So it’s a world where you can experience physical pain, mental pain, every type of normal problem, but you’re also immortal so you’re stuck with it for eternity—unless you can grow up. Unless you can reach an understanding with yourself and understand who you’re living your life for. That becomes gigantic in part three.

But the whole reason for this story—I didn’t want to tell it. I was actually just writing what became part two—being trapped inside the crocodile—and it was going to be called The Afterlife of Captain Hook. It was going to be all this stuff with Peter Pan and Captain Hook trapped inside the crocodile together, and Peter Pan keeps torturing him by becoming his parents, by becoming all these different things, and just messing with his head. I tried for two years to tell that story, and I couldn’t do it. It just wasn’t the right story. It didn’t make any sense. And once the idea of the Shadow was born—. The idea of Peter Pan’s shadow being stuck inside the crocodile with Captain Hook, and what that would do to them, was such as exciting idea. It was so many different emotional possibilities. This idea of these two siblings, one’s a shadow and one’s a normal boy.

The Shadow is the child whom the mother doesn’t see because of her grief at the loss of Peter.

That’s right. That’s exactly the kind of feeling that I want the audience to understand. This is a child who is a good child, she’s a clever child, she’s a talented child, and she’s making drawings all the time and hanging them around. She showcases every bit of herself that’s good and she’s treated like she’s invisible. She doesn’t even have a name that anyone wants to hear. The very first thing that the mother says to her when she’s born, before she even gives her a name, is, “Don’t you leave me, too.” So this poor child is forced to live in the shadow of this perfect brother whom she’s never even met, who’s gone, who’s abandoned the family and literally destroyed their mother. So this poor girl has no idea what to do. No one notices how wonderful she is. She can’t help her mother’s sadness. And she starts thinking of Peter Pan as some sort of magical, wonderful child, that if he’d just came back everything would be fixed. She doesn’t realize that Peter Pan left. She doesn’t realize that he left because he didn’t give a damn. My goal in writing the play would be to try to find a way . . . for her to be able to realize that she’s not responsible for her mother’s sadness or her mother’s joy. She has no power over that at all. And she needs to learn that she’s a wonderful person to herself. . .

Then this is ultimately more the Shadow’s story than anyone else’s.

Yes. It is. In part one we see her as a child. We see all these things that she goes through. Part two is more about the mental trauma that she’s been put through while inside this magical crocodile. We start to see the kind of life that she’s grown up with, her fears. The crazy part is she’s forgiving her mother for her own bad childhood because when mother’s depressed there’s nothing she can do about it.

Do you and Anna want to have children?

I think we’d both say no. I’m sure her first answer would be that we have a child already, which is our theater. But our own child, I don’t know.

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