Remember Peter Pan, the boy who refused to grow up? These days, the premise might seem a little less magical and a little more distressingly non-fictional. Leave it to Shoestring Theater, and its cheerfully anarchic puppet antics, to update and upend J. M. Barrie’s classic. Shoestring’s new Peter Pan, adapted and directed by Nance Parker, runs this Friday and Saturday, as the feature of Mayo Street Arts’ Puppet Cabaret, which opens with the Bad Puppys’ The Man Who Stole the Thunder: The True Story of a Pilot who Ejected into a Thundercloud and Lived to Tell the Tale.
Shoestring has built a brand new puppet theater for Peter Pan, an elegantly simple structure that allows its puppets to cavort on three different stages. Two of these are part of a trifold painted green and blue, with confectionary puffs of white-pink-orange flowers: near the top is an adjustable screen for shadow puppets, and above that is the open realm of hand and stick puppets. Behind that is a larger screen for yet more shadow puppetry, plus the elaborate cutouts and projections that serve as backdrops — island palms, a dreamy skyscape of moon and clouds, a city skyline silhouetted at dusk.
Peter (Zach Rohman) bursts onto these scenes in stripy green hat, skinny jeans, and pointedly orange hair. With a pleased-with-himself smile and bare feet, he struts, climbs the wall, and lounges like a pin-up on the middle stage. “I have no responsibilities!” he gloats in his high, soaring voice. “Just like our president!” He’s a shameless narcissist. “Stupendous, awesome, remarkable me!”
Here and elsewhere, Nance Parker’s adaptation of J. M. Barrie’s book subverts the story cheekily. The show gets in digs at gentrification as Wendy (Dylan Rohman) and her brothers (Zara Machatine and Sacaira Machatine) consider going to Neverland: “No more traffic or hipsters?” says Wendy, tempted. Meanwhile, stylish Captain Hook (Zara Machatine) — wearing a hat with a very long, very erect red feather — has to content himself with being meaner than everybody except Donald Trump. Instead of the problematically exoticized Indian maiden Tiger Lily, we have Tiger Mom (Allison Villani), who vows that every child will make first violin. And the idea of Wendy having to mother everybody gets especially knocked. “She’s the girl,” whine the Lost Boys, “she wants to be the mother,” as Wendy shakes her puppet head in disgust.
Production design has style and savvy to spare. As Hook stalks Peter on pirate ships and through tropical island forests, Cat LaBarre’s gorgeous shadow projections on the two screens offer striking, almost cinematic effects: an injured Hook plunges down the big screen in close-up, then continues downward on the little screen, smaller, as if in a long shot. Shadow-puppet Peter flies in from Neverland tiny and in the distance, as a cityscape cut-out rises beneath him, before the projection shifts to a window inside the Darlings’ house. Shoestring gives us kazoos doing the Star Wars theme, El Malo drummer Rion Hergenhan on sundry percussion, and a soundtrack that includes David Byrne and “Kung Fu Fighting” — the latter of which accompanies a truly awesome hinge-limbed fight scene, as Peter and Hook do mixed-martial-arts à la Neo in The Matrix.
Peter’s got this, of course. But he’s still a narcissist. And can 21st century kids really handle Neverland when they’ve been raised on the alternate reality of Corporate America? Just clap your hands, guys: Shoestring’s Peter Pan is smart, screwy medicine for what ails us.
Peter Pan, adapted by Nance Parker from the book by J. M. Barrie. Directed by Nance Parker for Shoestring Theater | With The Man Who Stole the Thunder, by the Bad Puppies | Mayo Street Arts, 10 Mayo St., Portland | March 17-18, 7 p.m. | www.mayostreetarts.org
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