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The Cult of Eternal Childhood

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PETER PAN

Center Theater

"All children, except one, grow up," goes the opening line of Peter and Wendy, James M. Barrie's 1911 novelization of his 1904 play Peter Pan. The sentence has the rhythm of religious incantation, of a response to a prayer. Certainly the cult of Eternal Childhood has a long history--and it's never more visible than at Christmas; the literature of the season is filled with it. How that state is attained varies--it may be through memory, as in Dylan Thomas's and Truman Capote's memoirs, or death (as in A Christmas Carol, though of course Tiny Tim is rescued at the end), or magic, as in Steven Spielberg's Peter Pan spin-off E.T., which treats alien science as supernatural.

Sometimes death and magic are combined into a transcendent force: the hopeful thought is that the child who dies young is young forever. So it is with Peter Pan, one of literature's most potent cases of wish fulfillment. Barrie's 13-year-old brother David died when Barrie was 6, and their mother's grief over the loss was so powerful that it complicated the young Barrie's own response to the tragedy: he felt that David had somehow stolen his mother's love. By the time Barrie was in his late 30s and met George and Jack Llewellyn Davies--the lads for whom he invented the Peter Pan stories--he had become obsessed with the linked themes of unending boyhood and mother love. ("What is genius?" he asked in the autobiographical novel Tommy and Grizel, written four years before Peter Pan. "It is the power to be a boy again at will.")

Barrie's obsession was more than a little unhealthy--but its intensity is what gives Peter Pan a power lacking in most other children's entertainment, of Barrie's era and our own. It's the reason the play became an annual holiday attraction in England after its Christmastime premiere 89 years ago. Of course, the less tidy aspects of the story are often swept under the rug--certainly in America, where audiences like their children's stories light and simple. Reviewing Maude Adams's Peter back in 1905, one critic waxed eloquent about the fairy tale's "lovely, sweet, and wholesome" qualities. Nothing could be further from the truth. Peter and his fairy, Tinker Bell, are mean, possessive, arrogant, and very vulnerable.

Center Theater's revival of Peter Pan hearkens back to the true spirit of Barrie's sprite, named after the pipe-playing pagan god of pastoral pleasure. Director Dale Calandra not only dispenses with the songs (added to the play in the mid-1950s for Mary Martin), he interpolates subtextual material from Barrie's wry, witty stage directions, giving it to the newly created character of a narrator. As played with creamy poise by Monica Mary McCarthy, she's an understanding, reasonable figure, forgiving of the idiotic excesses of grown-ups (though she's quite stern with Mr. Darling, whose fumbling attempts at authority drive his babies into the waiting arms of mischievous Peter) and wisely cognizant of the primal intensity of children's imaginations.

With this narrator safely in charge, Calandra is free to explore that primality. This Peter Pan is full of animal spirits. It's bold, rude, and a little violent. Dispensing with attempts to realistically depict the Darlings' snug but shabby home (for this is a very modern family, budget-conscious and anxious about father's job security), this production also eschews the usual trappings of fantasy. Peter's magic kingdom, Neverland, is obviously the bedroom of Wendy, John, and Michael, effectively transformed into a mermaids' lagoon or a pirate ship by the power of make-believe (with help from Thom Bumblauskas's colorful set, Gayland Spaulding's classic Christmas-pantomime costumes, and composer Joe Cerqua's new age/world music sound track). There's no real flying in this cramped room--the Center Theater's low ceiling prevents that--but it's not missed when Peter and the children float through David Puszczewicz's airy choreography, borne aloft by androgynous actors in body stockings.

Peter is played by a woman, as has been the custom since Nina Boucicault created the role; and Kimberly Berg makes a bold, handsome Celtic boy-hero, with flowing dark locks and defiant smile. She looks rather like Juliet Cella, who plays Wendy--a perhaps unintentional reinforcement of the characters' complex kinship as playmates, siblings, lovers, and surrogate mother and son. The two actresses also project a nicely matched vitality; and Cella's unorthodox beauty and gaminelike spirit recall the very young Vanessa Redgrave. The supporting cast--which features both men and women in male roles, reinforcing the show's wonderful "let's pretend" quality--is properly rambunctious. Ann Noble is especially fetching coiffed in Little Lord Fauntleroy curls as baby Michael, and Jenny Barron is hilarious in her oversize, slightly moth-eaten getup as the nurse-dog Nana. The only disappointment is Dan LaMorte's Captain Hook; though he has some delightful camp moments in the second act, he's nowhere close to the fearsome, larger-than-life presence called for. A strong Hook is crucial to this mythic tale of age and death defied--it is he, after all, who most clearly hears the crocodile clock of time ticking away, as it does for all of us.

THE LITTLE PRINCE

Touchstone Theatre

The title character of Antoine de Saint-Exupery's philosophical fantasy The Little Prince is a close cousin of Peter Pan: a perennially preadolescent star child who transforms the life of the human he encounters. Inspired by its author's near-death experience in the Libyan desert, this 1943 story (written the year before Saint-Exupery, a reconnaisance pilot, was downed in World War II) tells of an aviator stranded in the Sahara Desert, where he is saved by a boy from a far-off asteroid. The lad recounts his visits to a series of worlds whose inhabitants illustrate the foibles of human nature: the need for power and possessions, the dedication to meaningless but "important" jobs and general "matters of consequence" that are of no consequence at all. Like Peter Pan, who steals into the Darling home to reclaim his shadow, the Little Prince is after something vitally important: a sheep to eat the baobab roots that threaten to take over his tiny planet, with its three volcanoes (one extinct, but you never know) and its one beautiful but vain flower. Peter Pan never dies--though he faces his imminent demise at one point as a "great adventure"--but the hero of Saint-Exupery's Christian allegory invites his own death, by snakebite, as a means of returning to his home in the stars. He leaves behind a man saddened by losing a friend but consoled by the notion that the boy lives on forever.

Mounted by Touchstone Theatre for the last eight years as an alternative to the myriad Scrooges and Santas that grow like baobabs this time of year, this Little Prince is true to its source, for better and for worse. It's witty, sweet without being cloying, sad without being depressing, and full of worthy lessons. But it's also rather dull; very little actually happens in the book or the stage version, whose narrative thrust is carried almost entirely by the aviator narrator. Director Ivana Bevacqua tries to brighten things up with choreographic interludes (two women play astral birds and dancing roses) and colorful costumes by Patricia Hart (the Little Prince's dashing outfit is modeled after Saint-Exupery's own illustrations). Blessedly, the actors all carefully avoid the whininess and exaggeration too often associated with children's theater; Christopher Vasquez is a gentle, uncondescending narrator, Raymond Mark is a sly Fox, and diminutive Brendon DeMay (a Dennis the Menace look-alike) is a self-possessed if rather bland Little Prince.

Both The Little Prince and Peter Pan are welcome reminders, in a holiday-shopping time devoted to ever-more-expensive gimmickry, of the appeal of simple, warmly felt live performances that stress not technical effects but the sheer power of imagination.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/JoAnn Carney, Art Shay.

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