Dobama's 'Peter and the Starcatcher' will bring out your inner child

CLEVELAND HEIGHTS -- With the holiday season in full swing, there's a good chance your family gatherings will include children.

Some may be imaginative, creative, hammy, talented and willing to play make believe.

Their skits may feature little scenery and few props, but that's OK; watch their wide-eyed, dramatic facial expressions and hear their captivating voice. If the tale they tell is fascinating, your eyes may light up like the gleaming Christmas decorations as the tykes transport you to another world.

Catch Dobama Theatre's enthralling current production, and you'll be similarly transported, with few props and scenic elements.

Just as the aforementioned, hypothetical child enraptures you with his or her powers of make-believe, Dobama's "Peter and the Starcatcher" will rivet you to the stage with its power of simple but stellar storytelling. 

Vivid expressions and vocal inflections will whisk you to the high seas in this five-time Tony Award-winning prequel to "Peter Pan." This play with music is one of those immensely satisfying theatrical experiences that will have you in stitches while also touch your heart and soul with its poignancy.

The play and Dobama's production of it is epic, yet intimate, simple, yet complex, familiar yet foreign, but in a fond, fascinating type of way.

Playwright Rick Elice draws on a myriad of influences, from the Three Stooges to William Shakespeare to Charles Dickens to the English music hall (similar to America's Vaudeville) and to J.M. Barrie, author of the original play "Peter Pan."

What's amazing is that Elice, with all he's incorporated into his adaptation, has remained mostly faithful to Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson's funny page-turner of a novel "Peter and the Starcatchers" and simplified it skillfully with economy and a strong emphasis on Barrie's play. Elice has also neatly fit the pieces of the puzzle together so that we can see in this prequel how Peter Pan, Captain Hook, Wendy and other familiar characters came to be who they are, in the circumstances which they find themselves in "Peter Pan."

In "Peter and the Starcatcher," a young girl named Molly is among a group of people known as starcatchers, who have the ability to catch magic dust from stars. When fallen into the wrong hands, those belonging to evil people, the dust can cause major harm. In the right hands, the dust can put people on a kind of "high" and grant wishes, which may be irreversible. As Peter, fellow orphans and Molly travel to a far away place aboard a ship called the Neverland, the girl hopes to prevent a trunk of the dust from reaching the infamous Black Stache, who's traveling aboard another vessel.

Elice's play is modeled largely after the Royal Shakespeare Company's renown production of "The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby" by Dickens.

Both tales are told in "Story Theatre" form, in which a group of actors play multiple roles and provide narration while not in character. In "Peter and the Starcatcher's" case, 13 actors play more than 100 characters.

The performers are given a few props. With mood-appropriate, realistic sound effects by Richard Ingraham, they transport us to 1885 England. The action features a mixture of narration and interaction between characters.

Lines such as "And so our story begins" and "Supposing all these planks and ropes are now the British Empire" are included in the play. We're asked to find the "inner child" within us and go along for the ride.

We do, even though we're aware theatre's being created even as we watch, because the actors invest their performances with urgency, honesty and vivacity. In addition, we care about the characters' plight.

At one point, the actors use toy boats and move them just as a small child would while playing. Our inner child awakens and so does our desire to embrace the power of make believe. Our inner child remains when the performers spread out a wide sheet to represent a large body of water in which Peter "swims."

Credit director Nathan Motta for helping mold the performances into believable, vivid portrayals, Motta also makes good use of props by, for example, highlighting actors by having them stand on boxes. 

Comedy's often one of the hardest genres to perform, with its reliance on timing and truth. Even in this production's silliest moments -- and there's slapstick of the lowest comic order -- the performers never show off, begging for a laugh. They earn laughs by truthfully playing the situation.

Elice uses a variety of techniques to make us laugh, from wit and clever wordplay to anachronisms.

While the performances are mostly commendable, featuring contrast and believability, the production's not perfect. At times, the actors speak too fast, resulting in the loss of some of Elice's humor. And while Christopher Bohan as Black Stache is flamboyant with a flair for the dramatic as the lovable villain who'll become Captain Hook, the performance could use just a touch of menace.

That's the exact quality Joe Pine conveys as Slank, the ferocious captain of the ship the Neverland. There's a similar sense of a bully imparted by Grempkin (Keo), the vicious headmaster of the school for orphans attended by Peter and his pals.

There's also an assertive but later sensitive Molly Israel as Molly, a nervous, fidgety, submissive Andrew Gorell as Smee, a hilariously effeminate James Rankin as Mrs. Bumbrake and a polished, honorable Jason Leupold as Lord Aster.

Adults play children, but that doesn't matter because this play, among others, requires audiences to actively participate by exercising their imagination. Those adults include Luke Wehnerwhose Peter starts out as a moody, lonely youth but grows seamlessly into a soft-hearted, ironically maturing boy (ironically one who never wants to mature!)

Aaron Benson's simple but effective set design suggests places such as a jungle while giving the actors plenty of space in which to move about. 

Lighting designer Marcus Dana helps focus characters and creates an otherworldly, colorful atmosphere perfect for this non-realistic work.

The anachronistic flavor of the production is reinforced by Tesia Dugan Benson's costumes, some of which seem too modern for the period. Other fanciful, colorful clothing adds to the humor...and colorful nature of the show.

The many sources of humor in Elice's script include the magic of make believe. If you think about it, it's funny when the arrival of a big ship is announced...only to see an actor move a boat befitting a bathtub toy. It's humorous, because we're nodding in laughter as we're transported back to our youth when we played make believe.

And judging from the audience at the performance I saw, the inner child of many an adult is alive and well. 

 

IF YOU GO:

WHAT: "Peter and the Starcatcher."

WHEN: Through Jan. 3. Performances are 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. Sundays.

WHERE: Dobama Theatre, 2340 Lee Road, Cleveland Heights.

HOW MUCH: Tickets range from $35-$38, with senior and student discounts available. Call 216-932-3396 or visit www.dobama.org.