“Devised Theatre” is, simply, the process by which a group of collaborators build a work from the ground up without script-in-hand. As improvisations and conversations progress, a script and concept are formed, with input from the entire company during the rehearsal process. In the case of Burning Coal Theatre Company’s devised adaptation of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, a lack of a singular vision has resulted in a play that is beautiful to watch but whose puzzle pieces do not quite snap together.
For Burning Coal’s world-premiere presentation of Peter Pan & Wendy, visionary director Lillian White has assembled a guild of top-notch designers, under the technical direction of Barry Jaked. Katy Werlin mostly avoids Peter Pan cliché with grounded period costuming, and Elizabeth Newton’s props communicate early 20th century Britain while exuding magical qualities. Upon first glance, Newton’s warm and imaginative multilevel set pledges to be an open playing space upon which the story can unfold. But some bulky scene changes and an only partially necessary pool of water occasionally upstage the narrative.
Christy Rose perfectly mixes a music- and effects-driven soundscape that is otherworldly, and Mextly Almeda’s lighting has a handful of striking cues (but a great many shadows). In one of this production’s most unique approaches, Robin Harris’ choreography presents snapshots of the characters’ lives and — sometimes — successfully communicates flying sequences without a rigging system.
These artists, however, appear to be working on five different plays — with their work functioning as separately framed paintings rather than a cohesive mural. Adding to the disarray are a few superfluous scenes that almost certainly would have been cut during a traditional playwriting process.
Alec Silver is a beautifully agile Peter Pan, and he reveals the inherent sadness of the boy much better than any other iteration that I have seen. Silver, a skilled physical performer, doubles as fight director, bringing excitement to the hand-to-hand combat with Julie Oliver, whose double performance as Mrs. Darling and Captain Hook is dynamic and entertaining.
Ben Apple is magnificent and vivacious, doubling as canine caretaker Nana and the Jolly Roger’s first mate, Starkey. Cody Hill is sprightly a Lost Boy named Tootles. Some of the show’s performances are magical and larger-than-life, whereas others feel ill-fittingly naturalistic.
The production’s narrative strength lies in its focus on motherhood. Wendy’s bedtime story to her daughter Jane, played by the animated Holly Holmes, frames the play and offers a mature contrast to Wendy’s playhouse mothering of the Lost Boys in Neverland. The play’s point of view is solidly Wendy’s, not Peter’s. The inclusion of her name in the play’s title befits this approach.
Wendy’s two motherhood stories run alongside that of Mrs. Darling, whose extended pining for her missing children is a welcome new focal point that provides great material for both Julie Oliver’s Mrs. Darling and Mark Filiaci’s sturdy Mr. Darling.
Peter Pan’s strong resentment toward his own absent mother is reflected through battles with a female Captain Hook, whose slaying is cathartic for the orphaned boy.
Burning Coal’s new Peter Pan & Wendy is certainly original, with some moving moments and alluring designs; but this world-premiere production is less than the sum of its individual parts.
SECOND OPINION: Dec. 6th Durham, NC Indy Week review by Byron Woods (who awarded the show 4 of 5 stars): https://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/burning-coal-plumbs-the-strange-partially-formed-humanity-of-children-in-its-devised-peter-pan-and-wendy/Content?oid=9954541 and Nov. 29th mini-preview by Byron Woods: https://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/peter-pan-and-wendy/Event?oid=9840213; and Dec. 1st Raleigh, NC CVNC review by Alan R. Hall: http://cvnc.org/article.cfm?articleId=8744. (Note: To read Triangle Arts and Entertainment’s online version of the Dec. 2nd Triangle Review review by Martha Keravuori and Chuck Galle, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2017/12/lillian-whites-new-play-peter-pan-wendy-is-a-captivating-show-for-children-of-all-ages/.)
Burning Coal Theatre Company presents PETER PAN & WENDY, a world premiere adapted and directed by Lillian White, at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 9, 2 p.m. Dec. 10, 7:30 p.m. Dec. 14-16, and 2 p.m. Dec. 17 at Murphey School Auditorium, 224 Polk St. Raleigh, North Carolina 27604.
TICKETS: $25 ($15 students, teachers, and active-duty military personnel and $20 seniors 65+), except $5 Student Rush Tickets (sold at the door, 5 minutes before curtain), $10 Thursdays, and $15 per person for groups of 10 or more.
BOX OFFICE: 919-834-4001 or http://www.etix.com/.
VIDEO PREVIEW: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ETCFkCrDAJ0.
2017-18 SEASON: http://burningcoal.org/season/.
Peter Pan; or, The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up or Peter and Wendy (1904 play and 1911 novel): https://www.britannica.com/topic/Peter-Pan-play-by-Barrie (Encyclopædia Britannica) and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_and_Wendy (Wikipedia).
Sir J.M. Barrie (Scottish actor, dramatist, and novelist, nee James Matthew Barrie, 1860-1937): https://www.britannica.com/biography/J-M-Barrie (Encyclopædia Britannica), http://jmbarrie.co.uk/ (Dafydd Brown’s fan site), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/james-m-barrie-6613 (Internet Broadway Database), http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0057381/ (Internet Movie Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/J._M._Barrie (Wikipedia).
Lillian White (adapter and director): https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100006929595739 (Facebook page).
Dustin K. Britt, a Triangle native, is an actor and director. He holds an M.A.Ed. in Special Education from East Carolina University and teaches locally. Click here to read his reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment. You can find him on Facebook as Dustin K. Britt and via his movie blog Hold the Popcorn.