By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
“Use your thoughts to hoist the sails,” advises the stalwart Victorian captain of a British frigate in the prologue to Peter and the Starcatcher, opening on the Citadel’s Maclab stage Thursday.
Which is exactly what director James MacDonald and his cast of 12 Edmonton actors have been up to as they rehearse this madcap prequel to Peter Pan’s adventures in Neverland with the Darling family.
The 2011 play, spun by Rick Elice (Jersey Boys) from a 2004 Dave Barry/Ridley Pearson kids’ novel, isn’t a high-tech extravaganza. The fun, as Broadway audiences improbably discovered in 2012, is that it’s not. No, this kind of low-budget magic is a test of ingenuity, and a certain willingness to give your imagination a play-date with simple props, costume pieces, and physical ingenuity.
In telling the backstory of how a morose orphan became Peter Pan, a dozen actors play more than a hundred characters — narrators, sailors, pirates, dancing mermaids, dancing mollusks — and the odd inanimate object. The adventure begins on the high seas: the SS Neverland is bound for Rundoon, with a cargo of something magical and life-changing called “starstuff.” And after an epic maritime battle it arrives on a mysterious tropical island where the inhabitants have their own lingo.
“It’s a case of ‘happy surprises’,” grins MacDonald, on the subject of making magic the playful way. “A prop that’s supposed to be one thing turns into something else when you pick it up. That could be this! This could be that!”
It’s a mantra of playful theatricality that appeals mightily to MacDonald. “It’s a really hard show to plan for and design,” he grins. “You don’t want to over-design it, but you want to make sure you have all the stuff you’re going to want.” Like ladders, maybe. Or a pineapple. Or something to make outsized jungle leaves out of.
“Rope is big,” smiles Andrea Rankin. Yup, you can make doorways and docks and ships from rope.
Among the multitude of characters Rankin plays in the course of Peter and the Starcatcher, there’s Molly, a brisk, bossy little upper-class girl with a repertoire of bedtime stories (ring a bell?). There are pirates, including a particularly flamboyant one with an impressive moustache (hint hint). There’s a crocodile (another hint).
There are orphan boys, including a particularly glum one called simply Boy, who’s always lived in the dark, hates grown-ups, and never never wants to be one. “I love the theatricality of it,” says Oscar Derkx. He plays Boy, who will acquire a more memorable name in the play. “It’s not just massive fireworks; I feel like we’re inviting the audience to imagine along with us, to inhabit this world with us.”
“It’s actors’ theatre, it’s storyteller theatre,” says Derkx, like Rankin a U of A theatre school grad. Derkx is called upon to transform from Boy to bloodthirsty pirate in a split second. “We’re creating with fabric, lights, soundscape. And our bodies too! At one point I jump into a shimmering pool of golden water, and I ‘make’ the pool with my own physicality….”
For Montreal-born MacDonald, recently appointed to the helm of Western Canada Theatre in Kamloops, the production is a homecoming to the city where he went to theatre school (the U of A), launched his theatre career as an actor and then a director, and co-founded a summer Shakespeare festival (Freewill). And it’s a return, as well, to the theatre where he’s directed close to two dozen productions. “It’s pretty great, pretty emotional, for me to come back and work with actors I know!” he says feelingly. Having Edmonton talent in the show was important to him.
Peter and the Starcatcher isn’t MacDonald’s first encounter with that Neverland brouhaha. He was Captain Hook in a 1994 musical version of Peter Pan at the long-gone kids’ theatre Stage Polaris. Glenn Nelson was in that cast; so were Garett Ross and Clinton Carew. Nelson and Carew, incidentally, were in the production of Peter Pan that opened the Maclab Theatre in 1984. And now they’re reunited in the prequel.
Rankin and Derkx played Scrooge’s beloved sister Fannie and his younger self, when MacDonald starred as Scrooge in the Citadel’s A Christmas Carol.
Along with MacDonald, they love the way the Maclab’s thrust stage locates the actors amidst the audience. As MacDonald points out, the logistics of staging a scene for audiences on three sides may be tricky; ditto magical transformations. But when you’re after “a conversation, a relationship, with the audience,” nothing beats a thrust.
“For me, the show is all about the joy of being a child,” says Derkx of the story. “It’s about childhood and what it is to grow up….” Rankin points to the wistfulness the original Peter Pan story generates, “the moment Peter realizes the world is going to grow up without him….”
“Molly is going to grow up. And there’s a certain sadness to that. But, as she says, just because something ends doesn’t mean it hasn’t mattered…. It’s the dark that makes the light possible.” That’s the thing about playing a kid, she says: “you feel everything! And things can change in a second, the high-highs and the low-lows.”
Playing a kid isn’t about a squeaky kid voice or a funny kid walk. “It’s more about ‘how can I believe fully, in a fully committed way, to this moment and then switch instantly (to another),” says Rankin. “Adults brood.”
MacDonald laughs. “Can you think of anything more completely opposite to the last show I did here?” That would be last season’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, where every utterance has ominous nuances, and every scene is coloured by the tensions of the past.
In rehearsal MacDonald tells his actors “you have to be goldfish,” he laughs, demonstrating the quick zigzags with his hand. “That’s what kids do. You’re completely committed to something, then something happens and you instantly completely change direction!…. All the characters behave that way.”
MacDonald, who’s on the faculty of the Citadel/Banff Professional Program, uses the famous Abbott and Costello “who’s on first?” routine to teach actors the difference between “playing the comedy and playing the lack of comprehension.” The latter, he says, “is basically what theatre is about, people figuring out things.”
Molly is both a little girl and the woman she’ll become, Rankin is finding. “You can see she’s going to be an amazing woman. There’s a kind of grace and strength to her. She’s grown up with adults; she’s strong, smart…. The next moment she’s having a tantrum; she doesn’t know how to talk to boys; she has no friends.” Rankin smiles. “She’s growing up and we see the beginning of that.”
As for the eternal boy, Derkx feels that Boy is in a constant state of wonder in the play. Being a kid is wonder…. Every scene’s a massive new experience for him, seeing a girl, hearing her talk about all the magic in the world, seeing the sun, being in a jungle.”
“Girls grow up faster,” MacDonald grins. “Some boys never grow up!”
Peter and the Starcatcher
Written by: Rick Elise
Directed by: James MacDonald
Starring: Oscar Derkx, Andrea Rankin, Farren Timoteo, Garett Ross, Doug Mertz, Ryan Parker, Stephanie Wolfe
Running: through April 23
Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com