It appears that the Shaw Festival has gone out of its mind.
At least that’s the immediate impression one gets after the lights go up on Jackie Maxwell’s production of “Peter and the Starcatcher,” the pun-laden “Peter Pan” prequel written by the mad genius Rick Elice and executed by a cast of complete maniacs on the stage of the Royal George Theatre.
This show, fueled by an inspired back-story for one of the most famous children’s characters of all time involving insecure pirates, angry natives and a few resourceful teenagers, is one of the more refreshing pieces of theater the festival has produced in the past decade. It takes place on Judith Bowden’s fine nautical set, but also, as the playbill notes, “in the glorious space between reality and your imagination.”
Maxwell, who is nearing the end of her tenure as the festival’s artistic director, described the unorthodox creation of this production “one of the most hilarious, complicated, inspired and exhausting rehearsal processes I have ever been a part of.”
Indeed, it takes a lot of work to create the convincing sense of freewheeling playfulness and spontaneity this production achieves at every turn. And if the risky gamble of semi-devised theater such as this pays off, the audience only picks up on the hilarious and inspired parts.
The story begins in England, as two identical trucks are loaded onto two ships about to set off on a long journey to the fictional island of Randoon. One truck contains a trove of shimmering star-stuff, the other a bunch of sand. One ship contains three orphans tucked away in the hold (among them one nameless 13-year-old boy to become important in later legends) and a precocious young girl who befriends them, the other an English officer soon to be held ransom by a group of bumbling privateers.
Enter pirates. Enter mischief. Enter magic.
Enter Miley Cyrus references, constant demolitions of the fourth wall, perfect pratfalls choreographed by movement director Valerie Moore, mermaid drag numbers, shadow puppetry, aerial ballet, gender politics and flying cats.
Enter some of the worst puns you’ve ever heard, delivered by some of the better actors you’ll ever watch.
Chief among them is indisputably Martin Happer as the not-so-menacing pirate leader Black Stache, so named for the handlebar mustache he wears and to which he constantly refers. Happer’s performance, full of faux ineptitude and misplaced bravado, is straight out of the Marx Brothers by way of Tex Avery by way of Michael Scott. He leaves no piece of scenery unchewed, no opportunity for a terrible pun unexplored and no obvious desire unspoken.
“You have singlehandedly single-handed me!” he yells at Peter after closing his hand in an empty trunk, just to give you an idea of the level of humor we’re talking about here.
Happer is aided by an endlessly inventive band of fellow pirates led by Jonathan Tan as Smee, a comic revelation in his own right. His foils and fellow villains are no less gifted, from Patrick Galligan’s turn as a haughty British lord to the devious captain Slake brought to slithering life by the normally taciturn Graeme Somerville.
But at the heart of all that absurdity is a truly touching story of the boy who would become Peter Pan (Charlie Gallant) and the girl (Kate Besworth) who helps him find his way. Their interplay is sweet and sincere, peppered with just the right amount of humor amid the swirling madness of Elice’s script.
This is a great achievement for a play that could easily have missed the mark with a different or less inspired cast and creative team, a reminder of the peculiar magic and particular power that only live theater possesses. Like Neverland, this cast has turned the theater into a place you might not want to leave.