Theater Reviews: Pride and Prejudice and Peter Pan, Reimagined

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From Bedlam’s Peter Pan. Photo: Jeremy Daniel/Bedlam

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a canonical novel in possession of a good story must be in want of a dramatist. Or at least so follows the logic in two lively new stage adaptations from the P shelf of the library’s classic fiction section: Bedlam’s sexy and surprising take on J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, adapted by the ensemble and directed by Eric Tucker at the Duke on 42nd Street; and Kate Hamill’s hyper-frisky version of Pride and Prejudice, directed by Amanda Dehnert and presented by Primary Stages in a co-production with the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival.

Adaptation is a tricky business. If the source material is exciting but relatively obscure — take, for example, The Band’s Visit — the job is often one of faithful translation: moving a story from one medium to another with an ear for narrative and emotional clarity, guiding an audience through new terrain. But what if the terrain is well-traveled, criss-crossed by the footsteps of hundreds who’ve come before? We’ve almost all been to Pemberley and to Neverland, so in taking us back for another visit, an adapter’s project is less to make sure we know What Happens Next than to reveal (if I can steal a line from mini-Sara’s favorite Disney song) something there that wasn’t there before. Hamill’s Pride and Prejudice has fun and charm to spare, but it ultimately feels like it’s grafting an idea onto Austen’s text. Whereas Peter Pan, by daring to defamiliarize its well-worn source, burrows straight to the core of its story and discovers buried treasure there.

Tucker’s Peter Pan is a production intimately in touch with its own shadows — both the melancholy currents that flow beneath Barrie’s story whether a director chooses to wade into them or not, and the countless ghosts of Peter Pans past. As you enter the theater, instead of preshow music backing the audience chatter, you hear a monotonous female voice intoning some kind of official-sounding text over a loudspeaker. Listen for a moment and you realize, it’s the small print from the Samuel French edition of Peter Pan — the seemingly infinite and infinitely tedious licensing information, all the boring, legal, grownup stuff you’ve got to muddle through if you want to produce this magical classic of eternal youth. True to their name, Bedlam will be playing an anarchic game with this well-worn intellectual property, breaking it open to get at something deep within its heart.

And so they do, to truly weird and wonderful effect. The ensemble — three women and three men, including Tucker, who’s as appealing a performer as he is a keen director — lead us bravely into a world where the characters and circumstances that we know by heart transform, reorder, and recontextualize themselves in a kind of dream logic. With hardly any shifts in Charlotte Palmer-Lane’s scrappy, out-of-the-dress-up-box costumes, everyone but Wendy shifts between identities. Michael (Susanna Millonzi, a diminutive dynamo with a dangerously electric halo of energy around her) becomes Tinkerbell. John (the solid, chummy Edmund Lewis) becomes the Lost Boy Slightly and the Darlings’ maid, Liza. Mr. Darling (Tucker) becomes Smee and Toodles. Peter Pan (a rakish Brad Heberlee, both swaggering and fragile) becomes Nana the dog. And in a brilliant twist on the conventional doubling, the delightfully shameless Zuzanna Szadkowski as Mrs. Darling — not Mr.! — becomes Captain Hook.

Transformations of character and of space are a matter not of indication but imagination. On John McDermott’s flexible playground of a set — with its Astroturf floor, translucent green walls, and colorful kiddie pool — the Darlings’ home and Neverland interpenetrate each other: We are always in both. The effect is unsettling and wildly exciting. Who’s to say what piece of Peter Pan is coming next or how it will unfold? Everything in this world is role-play — from the “act” put on by John and Wendy at the story’s beginning when they pretend to be their parents, to the first encounter between Smee and Hook, which reads as an entirely different (and deliciously dirty) variety of role-play between Mr. and Mrs. Darling. Parents, be warned: This Peter Pan is kinda freaky.

While Barrie’s story is always about growing up, it tends to leave out a crucial part of the process — sex. But Bedlam digs into the secret id of Peter Pan and finds incredible riches there. There’s a reason that Wendy Darling (the bright-eyed Kelly Curran) isn’t double cast in this production. She’s the play’s feverish, yearning heart. “It is so queer that the stories you like best should be the ones about yourself,” Wendy muses to the incurably selfish Peter — but this Peter Pan doesn’t belong to its eponymous boy wonder. Instead, it belongs to a girl who’s starting to feel thrilling and frightening things, who senses something out there between the child she was and the mother that all the boys in her life want to make of her. “What are your exact feelings for me, Peter?” Wendy asks repeatedly, pressing to hear a reply other than Peter’s inevitable, infuriating, “Those of a devoted son, Wendy.” Wrong answer, McFly!

This sexual awakening lives in Barrie’s text — it’s always right there in the exchange of the thimble/kiss, and even more overtly in Tinkerbell’s livid jealousy — but I’ve never seen a production embrace it so openly. The women of Peter Pan stand in stark contrast to their male counterparts, all open-eyed awareness and electric desire in the face of the men’s perennial adolescence. They are three points on a timeline of maturity: Curran’s Wendy, a young woman feeling the sting and shudder of sexual longing for the first time; Millonzi’s Tinkerbell, an angry, ardent ex-lover thrown over for a new fling; and Szadkowski’s Mrs. Darling/Captain Hook, a woman who still wants desperately but feels, at her age and in her role as mother, no longer wanted. In this Peter Pan, Hook’s melodramatic “dying speech” (he’s not dying, but he makes the speech anyway, “lest when dying there may be no time for it”) takes on a truly wild new array of colors. Szadkowski’s cries of “No little children love me!” and “That is where the canker gnaws” become downright frenzied. Hers is the despair of a woman who is being pushed to the edges of the game — no role left for her but the villain, and soon not even that.

Bedlam holds a prism up to Peter Pan, refracting both its bright and dark spots with gleeful experimental abandon. The old terrain has become terra incognita, and its strangeness is wonderful to experience. As we watch Nana the dog stand up, morph into Peter Pan, and slow dance with Mrs. Darling to a French torch song, or as we witness Tinkerbell angrily chain-smoking and cursing at Peter in French (Hey, it’s the language of love, right? Even when you’re pissed off), or as rain suddenly fills the inflatable swimming pool, or silver confetti rains down on Wendy by the handful when she takes flight — we sit with our breath in our throats, rapturously awaiting the next twist in the myth. This Peter Pan keeps us suspended, delightedly off-balance as we start to recognize truths that were hidden all along in the story we thought we knew. It’s a sexy, sad, silly love song to the very thing that Peter — hiding in Neverland, a boy forever — seeks to escape: the carnal, chaotic business of living.

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If the characters in Peter Pan are constantly at play, so too are those in Kate Hamill’s Pride and Prejudice, though their games are not so much children’s make believe as grown-up reality. The show begins with the ensemble, four men and four women, serenading us with a cute rendition of Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders’ 1965 hit “The Game of Love.” Well, everyone seems to think it’s cute but Lizzy. As the cast rings handbells and blithely sings, “The purpose of a man is to love a woman, and the purpose of a woman is to love a man,” Hamill (she also plays Elizabeth Bennet) joins in begrudgingly but scrunches up her face in awkward discomfort as if to say, “Guys … really?” It’s an expression she’ll return to frequently throughout the show.

Love, marriage — it’s all a game, insists Lizzy glibly: “There are rules, strategies, wins, losses, and it is, theoretically, done for pleasure.” Though the idea of courtship-as-game is a natural enough one to draw from a Regency comedy of manners, Hamill drives it home so frequently and so explicitly that it feels like an embellishment on Austen rather than an organic outgrowth. Games are everywhere; so, too, are bells. From the opening number, to the myriad jingling props used for scenic transitions, to a speech by the love-struck Mr. Darcy in which he fumblingly compares his heart to a bell that “CANNOT BE UNRUNG!” — Hamill can’t resist casting her metaphors in bronze. When it becomes clear that even Lizzy might be falling in love, her father pulls out the biggest, bronziest one of all: “Ask not for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee!”

Though this Pride and Prejudice is full of high spirits and genuine mirth, Hamill’s additions to Austen feel, well, like additions. The games and bells become bells and whistles. While Bedlam manages to address the spectre of hundreds of past Peter Pans with wry wit, Pride and Prejudice seems anxious to prove that it can do something new with its source material — and in its anxiety, it tends to sacrifice the power of what’s already there. It doesn’t need to worry so much. When it embraces Austen’s inherent genius and humor, the production starts to shine.

Where Hamill excels is as a condenser of the story and a conveyer of fun. She cleverly squeezes Austen’s wide-ranging drawing-room comedy into the bodies of eight actors, almost all doubling to delightful and even moving effect. Mark Bedard is outstanding in a hilarious trifecta of roles: the handsome cad Wickham, the snobbish Miss Bingley, and the simpering grotesque, the Reverend Mr. Collins. Chris Thorn does droll, surprisingly poignant double-duty as Mr. Bennet and Charlotte Lucas, the two unhappily married spouses who hide their hearts with practicality and skepticism. And Jason O’Connell makes an excellent Darcy — as an actor, he’s as game to jump straight into “those weaknesses which expose character to ridicule” as the man he’s portraying is to avoid them. He knows how to play it straight and how to get a laugh.

Under Dehnert’s playful leadership, the cast is uniformly entertaining. From the buoyant Kimberly Chatterjee as Lydia, to the winsome, plucky Amelia Pedlow as Jane, to the pitch-perfect Nance Williamson — all shrill flutter and flap — as Mrs. Bennet, every actor embraces the production’s cartoonish elements with joyful, full-bodied commitment. This is a Pride and Prejudice where Star Wars references or fat beats are just as likely to be dropped as curtsies, and the ensemble dives headlong into its manic, slapstick-y, Austen à la Adult Swim aesthetic. It’s probably not lost on John Tufts, who plays Mr. Bingley as the human equivalent of a golden retriever, that for a contemporary audience he’s essentially channelling Bojack Horseman’s Mr. Peanutbutter, and doing a damn funny job of it.

Even drawn in broad strokes or spruced up with a pop-culture reference here and there, these characters belong to Austen and her wit and wisdom still sparkles in them. The unlucky exception is Hamill as Lizzy Bennet, who gets so caught up in the frenetic Tilt-a-Whirl of her own play that she often leaves the story lacking the solid center it so desperately needs. Hamill is making a habit of playing her own heroines: She’s portrayed Becky Sharp in her adaptation of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair and Marianne Dashwood in her version of Sense and Sensibility last fall. But whereas her Marianne felt just right — impassioned, recklessly sincere, adorably clumsy, both gutsy and vulnerable — her Lizzy feels unmoored, uncomfortable. She first encounters Darcy by spilling punch all over him at a country dance, a not-in-the-book meet-cute that turns her into the Smart But Awkward and Klutzy Girl, rather than the steady young woman who maintains her dignity while enduring Darcy’s slights. When met with Collins’s proposal of marriage, she becomes just as shrieky as Lydia. Granted, Collins is terrifying — but watching Lizzy careen around the stage screaming and spluttering is only superficially amusing. Underneath the funny, it undermines her.

Most problematic of all is that expression that stays stuck on Hamill’s face for most of the show — the scrunched-up, skeptical look of a contemporary woman who’s got all sorts of hang-ups about the whole notion of romance, marriage, and the Happy Ending. It feels like rather than meeting Elizabeth Bennet halfway, Hamill has pulled the character all the way to herself. Her Lizzy is so fraught with modern cynicism that her final coming together with Darcy is full of literal, physical writhing: She loves him, yes, but she’s all mixed-up, embarrassed indecision over the very idea of partnership. “I don’t know if this is the right match,” she agonizes, demanding of Darcy, “How do you know?”

Now, despite my affection for Disney songs, I’m all for non-Disney endings. And I have no issue with Hamill’s search for the real, worrisome feelings of uncertainty that accompany even the most loving of matches. But spending so long watching Lizzy — the imperfect but unquestionably dignified center of Austen’s novel — gawk and wriggle feels like overkill. We get it: It’s really hard to balance independence of spirit with love and commitment to another human being, especially if you’re a woman. But we still need someone to ground us — a character whose fierce heart and deep intelligence give us a north star, despite her mistakes and misjudgments. With a well-meaning but wobbly Lizzy, this Pride and Prejudice starts to feel a bit ungrounded. In its persistent additions to its source, it only intermittently accesses the power of what’s already there. While second star to the right and 40 blocks or so north, there’s an adaptation onstage that has remained largely faithful to the letter of its text, while simultaneously stretching the spirit in unexpected yet revelatory ways. Peter Pan’s container, while technically less altered than that of Pride and Prejudice, ultimately holds much more.

Peter Pan is at the Duke on 42nd Street. Pride and Prejudice is at the Cherry Lane Theatre.

Theater: Pride and Prejudice and Peter Pan