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Peter Pan

High-Flying Fun

Peter Pan, that beloved children’s classic, has been remade yet again, this time with a theater production that incorporates CGI technology. Yet as much as the 360-degree, computer-generated backgrounds enhance the scenes of flight, creating wondrous journeys through the sky, this production is ultimately rather disappointing for an over-12 crowd.

The basic plot stays true to J.M. Barrie’s original story: the ever-youthful Peter Pan (Nate Fellows) introduces the Darling children — Wendy (Abby Ford), John (Arthur Wilson), and Michael (David Poyner) — to Neverland, where Peter, Tinkerbell, and the Lost Boys battle the evil Captain Hook and his henchmen. Encounters with mermaids, fairies, pirates, and a Native American princess make for a fantastical experience that will delight children.

However, the plot of the play relies a little too heavily on the audience’s knowledge of the original story, leaving it rather underdeveloped and lacking in compelling forward movement. Instead, it seems more like a series of episodes that are only loosely connected and do little to create suspense and emotional investment. While the experience of younger children is unlikely to be hampered by this, adults may sense that something is missing.

In addition, a few aspects of the play are rather puzzling, if not downright disturbing. For instance, after Tiger Lily (Heidi Buehler), the Native American princess, is saved from Hook and his pirates by a clever ruse of Peter Pan’s, she shows her gratitude by dancing for Peter. Yet this is no demure gambol but a rather suggestive choreography of gyrating hips and undulating torso, performed to a soundtrack of heavy breathing. While beautiful and wonderfully performed, the dance also seems a little racy for a play otherwise so clearly aimed at a young crowd.

On the other hand, the performance certainly did have some redeeming qualities, not least of which was the CGI. The audience sits in a round circus tent, the sloped ceiling above a perfect canvas for creating an immersive world of chimney rooftops, star-studded skies, and luminous underwater landscapes. The actors themselves are actually fairly stationary during flying and swimming scenes while the computer-generated backgrounds projected onto the tent interior convey a wonderful sense of movement.

The dreaded crocodile, too, is a fantastic spectacle, the technology a bit simpler but no less impressive. Somewhat reminiscent of the bizarre modes of ambulation seen at Burning Man, it is a cage-like wheeled contraption propelled by two figures inside, one of whom also controls the wide, ferocious jaws of which Hook is so terrified. Its formidable roar will have children squealing with fear and delight, and adults will surely appreciate its inventiveness.

Captain Hook and Tinkerbell, though the antagonist and the jealous sidekick respectively, are the highpoints of comic relief and excellent foils for Peter Pan and Wendy. Captain Hook, played by Jonathan Hyde, is his wonderful, evil self, ironically scared silly by the ticking crocodile and desperately desiring a mother of his own. His attempts to defeat Peter Pan and kidnap Wendy for himself result in some fine capers, while his paralyzing fear of the crocodile and his need to be sung to sleep by Smee evoke a small measure of sympathy, and a large share of laughs from the audience.

Tinkerbell (Itxaso Moreno), too, provides some great moments, her raging jealousy of Wendy leading to whispered secret plots to get rid of her rival that inevitably fail. Tinkerbell’s pink tutu coupled with heavy workbooks and a plethora of harrumphing underscore the nice juxtaposition between the common image of fairies as kind, delicate creatures and Tinkerbell’s fabulously teenage attitude.

This production of Peter Pan is a mixed bag: the spectacle is wonderful, and kids will surely love the action and the pirates, but it ultimately, like many modern productions, relies a little too heavily on spectacle to carry it along. The attempts at making it appealing to adults tend to fall a little flat, but the CGI, the crocodile, and Tinkerbell’s funk factor are all a sight to see. And who doesn’t love flying?

The ThreeSixty Theater, Ferry Park, San Francisco
April 27 through August 29, 2010
Tickets: $30-$125