Peter and the Starcatcher

(First row from left:) Lawrence-Michael Arias as Fighting Prawn, Sean Okuniewicz as soon to be Peter Pan, Nicole Bruno as Captain Scott, David Blackburn as Slank, Tasi Alabastro as Alf, (second row from left:) Adrienne Kaori Walters as Lift Captain and Brittany Marie Pisoni as Hawking Clam Mark & Tracy Photography

Catching the Pan prequel

By Harvey I. Barkin

FOSTER CITY – Peter Pan is one of the most enduring characters of fantasy. Ever since his character appeared in J.M. Barrie’s novel at the turn of the 20th century, Pan has been featured in plays, silent film, Disney animated films, live action films (including one directed by Steven Spielberg and starring the late Robin Williams) and not just one TV series.

In fact, in 1928 Peter Pan became a peanut butter brand and, in the mid-1980s, was a syndrome categorizing men who have never grown up.

Peter and the Starcatcher Director and playwright Jeffrey Lo said, “I think, for many people, Peter Pan embodies the feeling of childhood. Probably because, literally, he is going to stay a child forever.”

Lo lead a talented cast of actors including other fellow Filipino-Americans: Tasi Alabastro (as Alf and other characters), Lawrence Michael Arias (as Fighting Prawn), Nicole Apostol Bruno (as Captain Scott and others), and Wes Gabrillo (as Ted) in the first in a series of novels by humor columnist and author Dave Barry and thriller author Ridley Pearson.

Peter and the Starcatcher premiered last January 18 and ran until February 4 at the Hillbarn Theater. The original play won five Tony Awards in 2012 for Best Performances by a featured actor in a play, Best Scenic Design of a play, Best Costume Design of a play, Best Lighting Design of a Play and Best Sound Design of a play.

Lo said, “Peter and the Starcatcher is an entirely unique piece of theater from the other, more traditional adaptations of the Peter Pan character. The play is written to be performed as a truly ensemble piece that celebrates the power that a community of artists have when they work together to create a story.

With that, our production really leans into the idea that we have a band of artists who are using their resourcefulness, creativity and comedic magic to create this hilarious world of Peter and the Starcatcher.”

What Lo described is a sort of theater improv called story theater. In Peter and the Starcatcher, the actors took turns narrating the story and played other roles. For exterior scenes, one of the actors waved a model ship. There were no men in black re-arranging props. The cast did the transition to the next scene ingeniously by artfully replacing the simple props or performing a number. The ocean was a long white fabric pulled at both ends by the actors.

What look like red crepe paper simulated blood spurting out of a severed hand. Chairs and tables re-arranged made for different interior scenes. The setting was Victorian England but Peter Pan wore sneakers.

No, it was not an el cheapo production. It was minimalist narrative for an intensely compelling story-telling. On one hand, story theater is perfect for school productions and some trauma survivors for social healing. But on the other, it is a powerful tool of persuasion used by salesmen and business leaders.

Think of Peter and the Starcatcher as a powerful presentation without Powerpoint. Without fx, prosthetic appliances, arias with killer hooks and moving stage sets, the actors worked harder to pull the audience into their story. Kind of hard when there’s not even a body harness to simulate Peter Pan flying. But the over-all effect lends an urgency for the audience to tap into their dormant imagination instead of CGI to do it for them.

The Hollywood Reporter said it was “rich in antic humor and theatrical invention.” Entertainment Weekly said it was “an absurdly funny fantastical journey!” The story happened sometime near the end of the 19th century but the not-quite-Captain-Hook’s character made reference to a Michael Jackson video – it was full of that kind of anachronisms.

Watching Peter and the Starcatcher after seeing Peter Pan is like watching Episode 1 The Phantom Menace after seeing Star Wars. You find out how Peter Pan and Captain Hook came to be. Peter Pan gets the prequel treatment. It’s story-telling from hindsight.

But the view from hindsight could sometimes be cluttered. In Starcatcher, it’s alluded that Peter Pan’s magical abilities came from “star stuff” as against the fairy dust in the Barrie stories. Much like Batgirl (played by Alicia Silverstone) was established to be Alfred’s niece in Batman and Robin when many dark knight fans know that Batgirl is actually Commissioner Gordon’s daughter.

Lo casted for the whole show. About the four Pinoys playing British characters, he said, “I do think that bringing any sort of diversity in background and perspective to any piece of art does certainly make for a richer, more interesting final product.”

All four performers have quite a bit of experience, with Arias having the most. Lo eyes Bruno “to be a rising star who has done amazing work since finishing high school last year.”