In Starcatcher, Peter Pan Takes Off in a New Direction

Three bold imaginations give wing to a new theatrical chapter in the legend of Peter Pan in Off-Broadway's Peter and the Starcatcher.

Roger Rees on the first day of rehearsal at New York Theatre Workshop.
Roger Rees on the first day of rehearsal at New York Theatre Workshop. (Photo by Stephanie Warren)

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There are many plays and musicals that, decade in and decade out, receive new leases on life through regular revivals. But few are the characters in literature that so inspire dramatic writers that they are consistently reborn in completely new scripts, with new adventures for beloved characters. Hedda Gabler reborn as Heddatron, for example; or Dracula singing a high tenor note in Dracula the Musical; or Sherlock Holmes in any number of TV, movie and play plots.

An unlikely member of this very grown-up company is Peter Pan, the famous boy that wouldn't grow up. Created by Scottish author J.M. Barrie, Peter first appeared in the 1902 book "The Little White Bird." Barrie's play version was regularly performed on Broadway from 1905 through the 1920s. It was then converted into a musical — by Carolyn Leigh, Mark Charlap, Jule Styne, Betty Comden and Adolph Green — that has also been regularly produced on Broadway and elsewhere since 1954.

And now, well into the 21st century, we have Peter and the Starcatcher, a new Off-Broadway play opening in March at New York Theatre Workshop. This Peter comes to us second hand, in a way. Though obviously inspired by Barrie's characters, it is actually drawn from a popular 2004 kid lit book by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson (the book's title is slightly different than the play — it's called "Peter and the Starcatchers"). The book is so popular that it was followed by three additional books. The play was adapted by Rick Elice, and is co-directed by Roger Rees and Alex Timbers.

A curious triumvirate, those gentlemen. How did the respective Jersey Boys writer, a Royal Shakespeare Company vet and the co-creator of the cheeky emo-rock musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson end up working on the same project? Well, because they all worked at Williamstown Theater Festival during the same summer.

Rick Elice
photo by Aubrey Reuben

Timbers was at Williamstown noodling around with the show that would become Bloody Bloody when Roger Rees, then the artistic director of the festival, invited him to take part in a project based on the "Starcatchers" book. Elice, also there, was asked to contribute some text. (Rees and Elice co-wrote the thriller Double Double, which was produced at Williamstown in 2006.) "Roger and Alex were directing a workshop of the section of the novel at the festival," recalled Elice. The workshop went so well that authors Barry and Pearson suggested the trio do more. This led to a second, more expanded workshop in New York.

"I was always a Peter Pan geek," said Elice. "I was introduced early on — not just to the Martin Martin and Disney, but my parents took me to see the J.M. Barrie play and I began to be fascinated with all the Barrie stuff. It all kind of excited my imagination as a kid. I remember being so happy as a kid with the idea of being Peter Pan, not having any bedtime or parents."

Additionally, he was hardly unfamiliar with "Peter and the Starcatchers." The book had crossed his desk in galley form when he was a creative consultant at Disney in 2002. He read it, and Disney subsequently optioned it for an animated feature. The movie was never made, however, and the rights to the book again became available. For the record, Peter and the Starcatcher was commissioned by Disney Theatrical Productions.

Alex Timbers
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Despite his hipper-than-thou resume ( A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant, Heddatron and other shows with his troupe Les Freres Corbusier), Timbers, too, admitted to being something of a Peter Pan devotee. "I grew up watching the Disney Peter Pan movie and had seen the Mary Martin. However, if one asked me 'What's your myth that you respond to?,' it wouldn't be first I'd mention. But it's an honor to work with Roger and Rick."

Far from creating an extravagant Neverland fantasy world on stage, Rees and Timbers have rendered the tale of orphans, pirates and flying boys through a very primitive and elemental theatricality. Props and scenery are minimal and simple, and actors not only play multiple roles but also function as bits of scenery. "In some scenes, they're the hero. In other scenes, they're a door," said Timbers.

"Roger came from the RSC ethic," explained Elice, "having had a first-person approach to it in Nickleby, spending a year of his life developing that project." Elice was referring to The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, the spartan, yet sweeping, 1981 Dickens stage adaptation that made Rees a star (and won him a 1982 Tony Award for playing the title role). "That's a persepctive unique to him. Also, Alex is a huge fan of Poor Theatre traditions. It was always their idea to do it with that approach."

"I like a certain type of theatre," said Rees, simply. " Nickleby had 43 actors and prompted the imagination of the audience."

"This is a very different version of the Peter Pan story than the green tights and a girl flying around the stage," said Timbers. "From the beginning, that was how we knew we were going to do it. Our interest is in really conjuring imagination. That's what I do with my own company. We're not hugely into representational stuff. We started the first workshop with a few ideas and a couple props. You can be loose and inventive if you have so few things. There's swordplay in the show, but there are no swords."

Once the script was ready, the show was given a 2009 workshop production at La Jolla Playhouse in California, with Christian Borle and Celia Keenan-Bolger in the cast. "I thought I had written this very clever adult play," said Elice. "But of course what happened is, people began to bring their kids. But they were the best missionaries we could possibly have. Kids love using their imagination more than adults."

"The demographic that responds to it are 30 and upward," added Rees, "but 13 to 25 — a group hard to get to the theatre — really respond to it."

That said, the three creators are happy that they are making their Gotham bow at the New York Theatre Workshop, which is well known for its venturesome adult fare ( Rent, Belgian director Ivo van Hove's projects, Martha Clarke's Vienna: Lusthaus, Tony Kushner's Homebody/Kabul). "It isn't kiddie theatre, but one might assume that it is," because of the Peter Pan connection, said Elice. "The context of NYTW puts the play exactly where it ought to be."

Timbers agreed. "Doing it at NYTW suggests innovation and experimentation and challenges pre-conceptions brought on buy the title."

Still, kids are not unwelcome. "I don't know if it's for everybody," mused Elice, "but it's appropriate for children who like to use their imagination."

The cast rehearses a scene from <i>Peter and the Starcatcher</i>.
The cast rehearses a scene from Peter and the Starcatcher. (Photo by Stephanie Warren)