By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
“To have faith is to have wings,” declares says the earnest little smarty-pants Molly (Andrea Rankin) to a gaggle of skeptical onlookers in Peter and the Starcatcher.
Faith, that is to say, in the theatre and the way it gets airlift from your imagination. And then, by golly, doesn’t our Molly float inches up off the deck of the ship? “Satisfied?!” she says smugly to the ragged onlookers. They are.
And so are we. This gravity-defying coup owes something to the transformation of a visible plank into a make-shift teeter totter thanks to human intervention. Faith and improvised wings get to the heart of this giddy, scrambling high-seas adventure, an epic with a mock-epic spirit.
The faith in cheap-theatre wit burns bright in the spirited James MacDonald’s Citadel production currently getting playful in every corner and aisle of the Maclab Theatre. A certain hectic, frantic, scrambly quality is built into this kind of physical storytelling, and this production doesn’t fall short in that department. There are stretches, though, where the “wings” seem to flapping awfully hard to get us through an adventure that tells us at the outset that “nothing lasts forever” but starts to make you wonder about that by mid-Act II.
Not, I hasten to add, that this points to a lack of bright ideas, possibly the reverse: overload in that cargo. And not because the performances from MacDonald’s cast, which assembles some of Edmonton’s brightest comedic talents, aren’t inspiration-studded.Possibly the production hasn’t yet quite found its sea-legs, or a rhythm that is forward and adrenalized without being just a wee bit relentless.
But there’s this: At the centre is a bravura performance of riotous and riveting, not to say show-stealing, hilarity from Farren Timoteo as the pirate king Black Stache, who will lose an appendage and gain an eternal following in what we’ll call the sequel (three guesses…) More of the Stache later.
Rick Elice’s cleverly intricate 2011 play, fashioned from the 2004 Dave Barry/ Ridley Pearson kids book, is designed as a backstory to the famous skirmishes in Neverland set forth by J.M. Barrie. And a big part of the fun of Peter and the Starcatcher is the way we gradually spot characters we’ve known forever from Peter Pan emerging, in their formative years, from sly hints and loops in the storytelling. So when the cast of 12, assembling on the bare stage, tell us at the outset that “everything ends,” they are starting the story that will end at the beginning of Peter Pan.
The once-upon-a-time is this: a Victorian sea voyage, two ships, a mix-up of two trunks identical “in their trunk-ness,” a cargo of orphan boys bound for slavery, a contraband treasure of life-transforming “starstuff” too dangerous to let fall into the wrong hands. Ah, and speaking of hands, did I mention the pirates? Everyone washes up on a mysterious tropical isle ruled by a size-large croc where the inhabitants speak entirely in vocabulary borrowed from Italian menus.
The most despondent orphan, Boy (Oscar Derkx), who “hates, hates HATES grownups,” will reclaim his lost boyhood and get a proper name and a home in the course of events. But before that, he’ll rise to an occasion that includes a mighty sea battle, a shipwreck, two high-contrast sea captains (Clinton Carew, Ryan Parker), a number of eccentric island cannibals, and (did I mention?) pirates. Ah yes, and the discovery of the opposite sex, bedtime stories, and the notion of family.
Peter and the Starcatcher is an enjoyable jumble of theatrical forms, and MacDonald’s production savours that. It’s part-musical comedy, with a live score and sound effects provided by musical director Erik Mortimer and Nich Davies. It’s part-pantomime, with all the shameless punning, mouldy jokes, double-entendres, and blithe insertion of topical anachronisms that designation implies. You’ll hear a wispy reference to Crazy For You float by; there’s a cameo from another Citadel hit.
Garett Ross is droll as the panto Dame, Molly’s exasperated, tart-tongued nanny Mrs. Bumbrake. Addicted to alliteration, she’s been around the poop deck a few times, as they say, and she isn’t above a little slap-and-tickle on the side from a romantic old salt Alf (Glenn Nelson). “If you touch a hair on her legs …” the latter valiantly warns their pirate captors.
It’s part-music hall and part-fantasy epic. The Act II opener, a chorus line of fish-turned mermaids, with fantastical bosom support from costume designer Megan Koshka, is a bit of both. And so is Koshka’s set, framed as an old-fashioned Victorian theatre, slightly askew, as if it’s lost its moorings and might end up slipping off a pier into the sea. It gets exactly the right kind of period melodrama lighting from Narda McCarroll.
It’s part coming-of-age comedy, witness wistful scenes between Peter and Molly, as one captures a childhood he never had, and the other starts to grow out of hers and move on. And the show even makes fun of its own storyteller theatre roots when Molly objects to the orphan boys’ improvised version of Sleeping Beauty. They have, she notes briskly, “abused the concept of the theatre collective.” Everyone’s a critic, eh?
Anyhow, some scenes are more fun than others. I loved Molly’s expedition through the depths of the ship, chamber after chamber, created entirely by human agency: ensemble members hold up slatted all-purpose planks as doors, which open on a variety of amusing tableaux vivant and slam shut. The Act II encounter with the Mollusks and their leader, Fighting Prawn (Stephanie Wolfe), and the fun of their language (“cannelloni! lasagne!”), on the other hand, doesn’t get much comic traction.
As the Boy, a naif made sullen by privation, Derkx turns in a performance that charts, delightfully, the birth and tentative growth of amazement about the world and its wonders. As the wiseacre of his two orphan companions — the one obsessed by being The Leader — Richard Lee Hsi is particularly amusing in his adult tone.
Rankin captures Molly’s competitive streak — “it isn’t a contest, but if it was I’d win” — and the way her certainties about her superior skills and knowledge are always getting undermined by the human factor. Molly has a slightly preposterous upper-class accent, and an air of noblesse oblige that will make you smile, in a performance smartly created from the friction between pompous, and rueful.
Back to the Stache and his “one for all and all for me!” piratical mantra. A production that can sometimes seem cluttered finds its comic starstuff treasure in Timoteo’s hysterical performance, well worth the price of admission. Vainglorious but craven, a self-dramatizing, self-enchanted Mrs. Malaprop of the high seas, Black Stache ignites the stage whenever he’s on it (matches provided by Peter Fernandes’s helpful Smee).
Instantly exasperated whenever anyone else gets a stage Moment — “enough of this non-versation!” — Black Stache pursues the treasure with flamboyant showbiz charm and a daffy but elegant store of contemporary references. Alas, it is “as elusive as a Philip Glass opera.”
The hand-severing scene in which Black Stache assures his eternal future as Peter Pan’s eternal arch-enemy Captain Hook is a riot. “I have a whole armada of possibilities at my former fingertips.” Timoteo doesn’t just negotiate the role, he embraces it and catapults off it. And the whole enterprise springs forward.
“You sound older already,” says the eternal boy formerly known as Boy, accusingly, to Molly near the end. The rest of us, though, feel younger when Black Stache assures us he’ll be back, “just when you least expect it, there’ll I’ll be, The Stache, right under yer nose.”
Peter and the Starcatcher
Directed by: James MacDonald
Starring: Oscar Derkx, Andrea Rankin, Farren Timoteo, Peter Fernandes, Doug Mertz, Garett Ross, Glenn Nelson, Richard Lee Hsi, Ryan Parker, Clinton Carew, Stephanie Wolfe, Morgan Yamada
Running: through April 23
Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.ca