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A dark 'Pan'; 'Peter Pan' at New Phoenix is thought-provoking

It's safe to say that at some point in our lives, we've all wanted to be Peter Pan. We've wanted to ditch responsibility and have fun, to trade the future for the current moment. We've wanted adventure and mischief, humor and glee. We've wanted to fly.

But what would that cost?

In a beautiful new production of J.M. Barrie's seminal story at the New Phoenix Theatre, we are provoked to look at ourselves in ways the Peter Pan franchise has not managed to do so eloquently. It asks us to re-evaluate the limits of youth, the pain of immaturity. It shows us that to grow up is to merely provide context to our fun, which sounds boring but really just makes it even more enjoyable.

Director Kelli Bocock-Natale has fashioned another ensemble-driven piece that is physically and theatrically similar to her staging of "Macbeth" in this same theater two seasons ago.

Both utilize space and body language in a figurative way, imploring its audiences to imagine more than just watch. With a hyper-John Doyle approach, she uses her actors as utilities in the storytelling, as set pieces, instruments, lighting props and sound cues. Here, the wind, water and ground have as much character as the souls who inhabit them.

Watching this young, agile cast -- some of whom are making their professional debuts, and some for whom this will be a breakthrough turn -- is much like watching a middle school drama club rehearse on a jungle gym. They whizz around you, hover over you, fling sweat from their brows, and make it all look like the best time ever.

For us in the seats, it often is. Bocock-Natale has a smart group in her corner. She has clearly given them enough slack on the leash to let them unfurl their own flags, but there are some weak connections made between a few key players that get in the way.

Our Peter, played so charmingly and handily by R.J. Voltz, is festive and elfish, and yet still very much a real boy. He might remind you of your own son. But Voltz's motivation wanders at integral moments, making it hard to know how much he believes in his own trumpeted philosophy. Even for a character whose perception for consequence is youthfully minimal, we miss the impact Wendy, John and Michael Darling have on him.

Voltz's adorable whimsy and innate comedic timing is not a small feat, though. He is more than agile; he is graceful. But his shortcomings make the game-changing chemistry with Christina Golab's Wendy less than chemical. Golab, meanwhile, is sisterly and motherly at once. (Paging Dr. Freud, by the way.)

Eric Rawski gives the most thrilling performance of them all, and that's saying a lot about this committed group. Rawski's Captain Hook -- an anticipated marriage, given his trademark sneering sarcasm and rapt wit -- is juicy and delicious. His Hook is too silly to frighten, yet too sharp to write off. Painlessly, Rawski plants Russell Brand's cavalier tongue onto the wig stand of Gene Simmons and the wardrobe of King Louis XVI.

Hook's pirate henchmen, Smee (Christopher Parada) and Gentlemen Starkey (Kurt Erb), reinforce Barrie's notion that Hook and his shipmates are less the enemy in Peter Pan's story and more the comedic relief. The real enemy is within Peter's own head.

This is a dark interpretation of a story that has delighted each of us in youth. It is clear the impact Barrie had on Maurice Sendak and Roald Dahl. In children's literature, we don't often hear of an alternate route, only the destined one. But when we see things through this Peter's yearning eyes, we learn that while we can all pick our poisons, we can also pick our flights.


"Peter Pan"    

3 1/2 (out of 4)

WHEN: Through Dec. 23    

WHERE: New Phoenix Theatre on the Park, 95 N. Johnson Park    

TICKETS: $15-$25    

INFO: 853-1334,