By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
Funny how people laugh out loud (and maybe wince a little) when you casually mention the title of the production that arrives on and above the Citadel mainstage starting Thursday.
Peter Pan Goes Wrong, after all, enhances exponentially the risk factor built into live theatre, where lines, cues, lights, entrances, props, doors, windows, even zippers, can seem to have a free-floating drift toward anarchy. Then you add wires, and air traffic control en route to Neverland…
So, Peter Pan. Live. What could go wrong?
Peter Pan Goes Wrong is the creation of the well-named Brit comedy outfit Mischief Theatre, whose impeccable credentials in the tricky, high-precision hilarity of the near-miss have been recognized world-wide. Their Broadway and West End hit The Play That Goes Wrong, that’s tickled audiences in 20 countries or more, is still ensconced in New York and London.
With this 2013 comedy, the earnest amateur thespians of the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society, fresh from their ill-fated production of The Murder at Haversham Manor in The Play The Goes Wrong, are back in action. And they’re hoping for vindication, redemption with a festive production of Peter Pan.
In this, they’re up against “a complex one,” says London-based director/ performer/ writer Adam Meggido, who directs an all-Canadian cast of 12 in the much-delayed Citadel/ Vancouver Arts Club co-production (presented by arrangement with Mischief Theatre Worldwide) first announced two years ago. “But that’s the Mischief vision,” he says. “As many things as can go wrong DO go wrong…. They’re pretty relentless in their pursuit of laughs.” Peter Pan ups the ante on disaster potential, of course; the sky’s the limit, literally, since there’s no footpath to Neverland. “There’s literally an extra dimension to go wrong in.”
The production we’ll see is the North American premiere, “a testing ground,” as Citadel artistic director Daryl Cloran has said, “for expansion into U.S. markets, including New York.” And the international collaboration renews a surprising Edmonton connection, forged in improv. Meggido, a co-creator, director and star of the first-ever improv show to be nominated for, and win, a major theatre award — Showstopper! The Improvised Musical, a continuing hit across the pond, pocketed the Olivier in 2015— has been here before, and more than once. He has history here; he even ‘bought’ a seat at the Varscona for their fund-raiser.
He’s joined Die-Nasty for their Soap-A-Thon marathons of yore. In Rhapsodes, which has played Rapid Fire Theatre’s Improvaganza, he and improv partner Sean McCann think nothing of creating on the spot a perfect sonnet, or an entire Shakespeare play, custom-made from personal stories of audience members.
This time Meggido, a thoughtful and (as you might expect) formidably articulate sort in conversation, has crossed the Atlantic to create mayhem — or, to be precise, to do show that goes wrong, in every possible way.
Its trio of creators (Henry Lewis, Henry Shields, Jonathan Sayer), friends of his from his days teaching at LAMDA (London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art), brought Meggido the original script to direct. He traces its inspirations, for one, to a hysterical clip that made YouTube stars of the cast and crew of a 2010 American high school production of Peter Pan. The flying fiascos are, well, mesmerizing. Have a peek here.
And he considers Buster Keaton’s madcap short film One Week (1920) — “he builds a house, and eventually he’s running through it as it rotates” — another big influence.
Unlike, say, the Michael Frayn farce Noises Off, in which you see an onstage view of a terrible touring farce then cut away from the onstage view to the backstage chaos, “everything you see in (Mischief’s) ‘…Goes Wrong’ shows is actually the show. The agendas behind the characters spill out, yes, but you’re still there to watch the The Murder at Haversham Manor or Peter Pan.” Or, in the case of Magic Goes Wrong, the Mischief show Meggido has just directed in the West End, a charity fund-raiser for magicians. “We’re in the world of the play all the time.”
“It’s very easy to push the gags too far, and allow them to comment on what’s going on,” says Meggido. “We’re just letting the audience see the disasters, and watch the actors recover.”
What does our attraction to the near-miss or the mid-air collision say about us, anyhow? “The reason we go to theatre is because it’s live,” says Meggido. “It’s a live, communal experience. We share the same space, the same light, the same time…. Backstage the actors might be panicking. But the audience loves it when something goes wrong, the set falls down, or someone forgets their lines.”
It’s proof of live-ness. “And live is dangerous!” Mischief “takes those moments of pure live-ness. And creates an entire brand because of them…. The audience goes away happy: ‘it was great!’ they’ll say. ‘And you’ll never guess what happened!’”
That same idea, the excitement of live-ness, is built into improv, of course, as Meggido says. “I just love that it’s being done on the spot … the exhilaration and excitement when we the actors are discovering things at exactly the same time as the audience.”
“I just don’t see that as a reason to lower the bar on the quality of it,” he says, with an educator’s zeal. “When improv really started to kick off again in the U.K. 10 or 15 years ago, there was an attitude among certain improvisers that ‘hey, don’t judge us; we’re making this up as we going along’.” Meggido vehemently disagrees. “No no no! If you’re going to charge money to make something up as you go along I want it to be high quality.… I don’t want improv to be an excuse for anything. I want it to be a a springboard for exploration.”
“Let’s take away all the apology, but keep all of the aspirations.”
A lot of Mischief’s ‘goes wrong’ shows were developed through improvisation, Peter Pan Goes Wrong among them, Meggido says. And they retain elements of improv he compares to ‘lazzi’ in commedia dell’arte shows, moments of clowning when the action of the play stops “and the player plays the crowd for a while.” The production we’ll see has some of those.
Meggido, who writes, performs, directs (“I’m obsessed with variety”) argues that it’s actually not hard to turn out, on the spot, a perfect, impromptu Shakespearean sonnet, a scene or an entire play that the Bard somehow forgot to write. “If you’re a person into words in any way, a person who loves rhythm and language, it’s really not all that difficult to hold in your head where the beats and the rhymes are….”
He advises taking a cue from the way we tell stories or jokes. “You think of the end first, and think how to get there, rather than one beat to the next…. Improvising something like a sonnet, based on a person’s life story, very quickly I’m thinking what’s the final line? What is this leading toward? So I can finish strongly and the last revelation sounds very satisfying.”
“So actually we’re just using the same channels of communication we’d usually use.”
Similarly, with magic — as Meggido discovered working with top magicians for Magic Goes Wrong — “when you learn that certain skills and tricks are involved, it’s less impressive,” less magical. The art of the magician, as he puts it, “is to keep you safeguarded from that (reductive knowledge). He quotes Houdini: “a magician is an actor pretending to be a magician.”
The route to Neverland is paved in a sense of wonder. “Magic is very important in Peter Pan,” says Meggido. “And as much as everything is going wrong in our show, we also want you to get the magic, the wonder of Peter Pan.”
What looks dangerous is genuinely dangerous, Meggido points out. “Actors suspended in the sky, completely controlled by the operators…. And backstage there’s a whole other show to keep things running. You don’t see what they’re doing but it’s high-speed. Technically, it’s very very demanding! A lot of hard, precise speedy work, both in front of and behind the curtain is happening in this production.” He plans to have the entire technical team share the curtain call.
“It’s very exciting to be putting a show together after two years,” says Meggido of the suspension of Peter Pan Goes Wrong in 2020 after three days rehearsal on the cusp of the pandemic. “This one is so funny, one of the funniest shows I’ve ever seen. And it has a lot of heart. You’ll feel you’ve watched the magic of Peter Pan as much as you’ve watched (hapless) amateur actors. You’ll want them to be triumphant.”
“So much of comedy has its roots in pain. If there’s something the characters really care about, it’s got to hurt them when it goes wrong…. They’re invested in the outcome: if they aren’t why would we be?” says Meggido. And if they do make it to the end, there should be a feeling of triumph. The question is will they get there?”
Peter Pan Goes Wrong
Theatre: presented by arrangement with Mischief Theatre Worldwide in association with the Citadel/ Vancouver Arts Club
Created by: Henry Lewis, Henry Shields, Jonathan Sayer
Directed by: Adam Meggido
Starring: Alexander Ariate, April Banigan, Alexandra Brynn, Jamie Cavanagh, Chris Cochrane, Belinda Cornish, Gabriel Covarrubias, Oscar Derkx, Sebastian Kroon, Rochelle Laplante, Camille Legg, Andrew MacDonald-Smith
Running: through March 20
Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com