New Peter Pan Dazzles with Real and Virtual Effects

I first heard about J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan at the Threesixty Theater (playing Tuesday-Sunday through Aug. 29) when my friend, aerial performer Rain Anya, auditioned for the role of mermaid back in February. I always loved the story and was curious about the show. After she got the part, I learned that this production of Peter Pan features a three hundred and sixty degree projected CGI movie as background. I decided that I had to see it. When I sister and I arrived at the San Francisco show last Sunday I already knew the performance has a unique take on J.M. Barrie's classic. But I still wasn't expecting what I saw. 

There is plenty of wire-and-harness flying, of course, but I wasn't expecting to be so thoroughly charmed by it. The actors flip and zoom so gracefully that it's hard not to smile. More than anything, though, the CGI is downright beautiful. Partnered with the score and the live action, the animation immerses you in Peter Pan's world, from Victorian London to Neverland and back again. The cast's timing with each other and with the CGI background is seamless. 

After a run in London this incredible production is now in San Francisco, in Ferry Park. You might have already seen the huge white tent that houses the circular stage. There is no "middle" aisle in this theater and each seat offers a different angle on the action. There's also no "backdrop" exactly. Instead, the computer-generated images are projected all over the white tent above the audience's heads. When Peter and Tinkerbell lead the Darling children in flight over London, the actors are suspended over the stage, a CGI London zooming all around them. It's more than a little magical. 

This production is loyal to J.M. Barrie's original, so you probably already know the story. It's the presentation of it here that's full of creative twists. Drawing from theater, computer animation, aerial dance, puppetry, and modern dance, the production places it all within the most original set design my artist sister and I had ever seen. The circular stage features several sections that flip over, switching from flat space to the Darlings' beds, from a large, tunnel-filled "rock" to solid ground. The versatility of the stage is something to behold. Paired with the CGI, it makes a believable bedroom, pirate ship, Lost Boy hideout, even an underwater universe when John and Michael go looking for mermaids. 

Speaking of which, the mermaids' aerial performance takes place on fabric instead of wire like the other "flying" actors and looks completely different than the other aerial choreography. The mermaids are played by Rain Anya and Sarah Bebe Holmes, co-founders of the Paper Doll Militia performance troupe and long-time performance team. They are so in sync in the air that their performance is stunning to watch.

Actually, the choreography is stunning throughout. The use of the stage is every bit as engaging as the aerial sequences. I loved the fight between the pirates and the Lost Boys, and Peter and Captain Hook's wire-assisted slow-mo fight is irresistible. 

The casting is also fantastic. Peter Pan genuinely seems like an adventurous boy bounding across the stage, not an adult actor. Wendy sounds and looks so much like a tween girl that my sister wondered if the actress was a real child (she's not). When pirates surround the Lost Boys and the Darling children, the contrast between "kids" and grown-ups is dramatic. The pirates are menacing and everything you expect from Neverland pirates, while the Lost Boys come across as a bit innocent even when they're hollering and shooting arrows. Captain Hook, played by Jonathan Hyde, is such a perfect villain that I didn't notice that Hyde also plays Mr. Darling until the final bows. 

The production's take on Tinkerbell is the best incarnation of the character I've ever seen. This Tink is sort of a grunge-punk fairy with combat boots, dirt on her puffy pink tutu, a tattoo on her arm, and lights in her short hair and in her tutu. She looks a little like Ani DiFranco as a fairy. Tinkerbell is a tough, stomping pixie full of stage presence and mischief, a perfect accomplice for crowing Peter Pan and the hyperactive Lost Boys. 

The only flaw in the production is that it retains some of the Native stereotypes of J.M. Barrie's original, which feel out of place here. The Indians are mostly absent except for Tiger Lily, who is played by a white actress in a skimpy costume. Tiger Lily's broken English seems forced and wooden. Her major scene is a breathtaking dance, unfortunately scored with faux-Indian music and grunted syllables. It's an awkward moment in the otherwise spot-on score. 

On a brighter note, the show makes excellent use of puppets. The "Nana the dog" puppet is a complete character. The birds are also very well done. But the Tick Tock Croc puppet (if you can call it that) blows them out of the water. Operated by multiple people and gliding across stage on wheels, the huge crocodile puppet seems a worthy foe for the Captain and is pure fun to watch. 

Some of the show may be scary for young children. The score included very loud canon noises when the pirates fire on the heroes, and this startled several babies in the audience. Two scenes of Captain Hook killing disloyal pirates were a bit graphic with blade-through-flesh sounds. A four-year-old girl near us asked her father, "Is he dead?" and sounded pretty frightened. ("Of course not," her father assured her.) Keep this in mind if you're considering bringing a preschooler. Older children will be delighted, though, and during the intermission we saw several kids trying to fly. 

Ultimately, though, I think George Barnard Shaw's description of the story is especially apt for this production, "ostensibly a holiday entertainment for children but really a play for grown-up people." This is the kind of show you could watch half a dozen times just to notice all the visuals. It's easy to get caught up in and be enchanted by it. It transports you to Peter Pan's world for two hours, and the only trouble is that you might not want to leave. 

EBAC thanks Threesixty Degree Presents J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan for access to this performance.

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