A Neverland Dystopia?
When the Scottish novelist and playwright J.M. Barrie supplied the dialogue “This is queer!” to the pirate character of Smee, who calls it out while being verbally accosted by an unseen Peter Pan in Barrie’s 1904 play, it’s difficult to ascertain whether Barrie was mining its newly emergent duality of meaning (what would eventually come to refer to sexual and gender minorities who are not heterosexual or cisgender) or simply indicating that the action of the moment was “strange” or “not quite right,” more in line with the common usage of the word at that juncture in history. With regards to the current production though, which plays at Bard through July 22nd, the emphasis on that particular utterance (it’s now shouted in unison) amid a heavily-abbreviated script can only be read as fully intentional. (The play has been trimmed down to a ninety-minute run-time, which includes the entirety of the Leonard Bernstein music and songs that provide impetus for this production; Bernstein’s music is being celebrated world-wide this season in recognition of his centenary year.) The re-purposing of the word queer serves to highlight the chasm of space that exists between the original world of the play (1904), the Bernstein musical (from 1950, when the play and music premiered on Broadway for the first time, almost immediately eclipsed by the Mary Martin musical version that would come along four years later), and of this postmodern moment of “now.” That space – absence, even – is made manifest, physicalized, embodied, then turned against itself in Leonard Bernstein’s Peter Pan.
This strange and dreamy reimagining, under the precise direction of Christopher Alden, sets out not just to be queer but to actively queer its existing structures, made up of the Bernstein incidental music and songs, and the aforementioned Barrie play, which is cut up and remixed here to sometimes disorienting effect. When applied as a verb, the act of queering seeks out places where things such as gender, sexuality, masculinity, femininity, and identity can be challenged and questioned. Common themes that pre-exist in the Pan source material (that of adolescence, abandonment, fear of aging, fear of death, the tick-tick-ticking of the clock inside the crock) are expansively challenged while occasionally (incidentally?) reinforced, creating a slowly-emergent queasiness that is punctured and sometimes punctuated by the juxtaposition of Bernstein’s frothy bittersweet songs.
That which is expected from a telling of this narrative (children, pirates, fun, flying) set against what actually exists on stage (non-binary performers, pirates recast as lost boys in ski masks with scary post-apocalyptic vocal effects, starkness, deadpan affectation) creates the bulk of the dramatic and narrative tension for the evening, and when it pushes and pulls in just the right way, it’s capable of delivering images and moments that spin you around, like Neverland being depicted by a mermaid pushed in a shopping cart by a waving ensemble wearing bizarre mascot masks, suggestive of a Flaming Lips concert set piece or a Banksy prank, yet somehow perfectly situated within the world of the production.
Other times, this anti-storytelling methodology verges on the unapproachable, setting its colder worldview directly in opposition to the warmth of the music, as though it feels compelled to resist the nostalgic swelling of the strings by means of rejecting the sentiment and leaving only the artifice behind. This is Peter Pan set in a dystopian futureland, the music acting as a remnant of a memory of a time when feeling was more possible, when childhood was more innocent; before we found ourselves up against a neon wall, staring out at the void, attempting to determine if we’ve (finally, like Peter did when he flew back one night only to find the window closed against him) reached a point of no return.
In particular, Erin Markey’s Wendy embodies this disconnect; Markey, compelling and beguiling as always, plays both Wendy and the idea of Wendy, creating a necessary and critical distance between the perhaps outdated needs of the character (to be a mother? To learn how to love Peter Pan, and/or save them?) and the needs of the performer within this production. It’s a performance that feels suspended between dream and reality, wrestling with the opposition of straddling worlds (Neverland and the real world) and identities. Peter Smith’s Peter Pan is reminiscent of the original Greek God Pan, transgressive, menacing, threatening at times, a jumble of naiveté, hope, and fear of abandonment, coupled with willful and dangerous ignorance of what the future must eventually bring. The relationship between Peter Pan and Wendy, which generally serves to drive other versions of this story, doesn’t exist in such overt fashion here – it’s more of a instigator for Tinker Bell, played with deadpan maliciousness by Jack Ferver (who also provides the choreography). That relationship and its power dynamic is perhaps most centered in Alden’s production through a series of dances between Pan & Tink, one of which culminated with Pan carrying Tink offstage while Tink slowly but overtly gyrates against Pan. When Wendy laments that Pan will be “rather lonely in the evenings” without her, Pan replies, “I shall have Tink,” at which point Ferver pointedly stares out at the audience, the subtext of the gaze being something along the lines of “I fucking win.”
The tight ensemble work by Catherine Bloom, Milo Kramer, Jewel Evans, Alec Glass, and Charles Mai, who play both lost boys and pirates as well as occasional observers to the action and placers/scatterers/roasters of potatoes throughout, is near-perfect both in tone and physicality. William Michaels’ Captain Hook literally drinks blood, and delivers the most exhilaratingly fully-sung through moment later in the play (although this also serves to put into question the overall balance of music to text, which is… wonky).
Out of many striking moments, one in particular lingers and serves to underline what my reading of the production’s ambition might well be. Ferver’s Tinker Bell stalks the stage with a disco ball in hand, slowly turning the ball this way and that, catching and casting refracted light across the stage walls and ceiling, unsatisfied, restless, compelled to stay in motion, to keep twisting the mirrored ball so that we can see, ever so briefly, another vision, a different way, before yanking it once more, shifting the light into darkness, fracturing the known into tiny particles of unknowability.