Rough Winds Shake the Darling Buds: Neverbird comes in for a landing.
Rough Winds Shake the Darling Buds: Neverbird comes in for a landing.

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A pair of Peters—Parker and Pan—turned to the dark side last week. Both are kids’ faves, both fly, and both are returning in new, moody incarnations, but only one offers much in the way of fresh enchantment this time around.

That would be the one in Mabou Mines’ Peter and Wendy at Arena Stage. This Peter isn’t burdened with hundreds of millions of dollars in digital effects, nor is he—despite being a puppet—nearly as wooden as Tobey Maguire. And unlike Tinseltown’s webslinger, Peter Pan has an excuse for being petulant, obstreperous, and for using his powers unwisely: He’s a kid.

A kid backed up, in this instance, by the wildly creative theatrical imagineers of Mabou Mines, an experimental New York arts collective. The troupe’s productions have long been celebrated for eccentricity—an Ibsen-based Dollhouse, say, featuring a conventionally sized heroine surrounded by male dwarfs—and while its reputation isn’t based on entertainments suitable for children, you’d expect it to approach family fare with an eye to both literary values and visual invention.

Just how much invention, however, you’ll not expect. No sooner has an elegantly slender Victorian narrator (Karen Kandel) picked her way through the clutter of a children’s nursery than the stage starts coming to literal life. As the narrator speaks of how Mrs. Darling sets about “tidying up her children’s minds,” six veiled puppeteers, previously just piles of rags on the floor, start arranging stacks of oversize books into graceful curves. Mention of Nana, the Darling family dog, brings a tangle of brown cloth to tail-wagging life.

The dog runs, every cloth joint articulated as precisely as it would be in a slow-motion nature sequence on the Discovery channel. While you’re wondering how the puppeteers are managing that, and how Kandel is managing to voice not just Nana’s barks but Mrs. Darling’s coos and Mr. Darling’s growls and the baby talk of Wendy and the kids, you very nearly miss the moment at which a paper house unfolds from the floor, its windows soon to be filled with shadow play of an altogether different style.

Then a smaller doll’s house unfolds in front of it, and your attention shifts to a toy chest filled with wooden figures. And, somehow, while they’re being given individual personalities, the clutter on the floor vanishes, and the back wall of the stage opens up to reveal a starry firmament.

And a window. Through that window flies Peter and the shadow from which he’ll soon be separated—a shimmering black cloth that is given a distinctive life of its own, even as the 2-foot-tall boy who won’t grow up is developing the fidgets and tics of a particularly willful 5-year-old. Forced to sit still for a moment, his knee starts bouncing, his ankle flexing. Struggling to reunite with his shadow before Wendy offers to sew it on, he stomps and wriggles through all the recognizable phases of a child’s tantrum—persuasive to the point that you nearly forget he’s made of cloth and wood. All this before anyone’s so much as mentioned Neverland, and given director Lee Breuer an excuse to send nightshirts soaring heavenward as if clotheslines had never been invented.

Seven years after Peter Pan had its stage premiere in 1904, J.M. Barrie adapted it as the novel Peter and Wendy, articulating a few of the thoughts his characters hadn’t had the time or inclination to express in the theater. The play, in all its incarnations (including the ’50s musical in which Mary Martin’s Peter taught a whole new generation to crow), has always been a heady mix of pre-adolescent adventure and wistfulness about the fleeting nature of childhood. The novel, conceived for folks old enough to read, shifts the accent subtly toward the bittersweet. Mr. and Mrs. Darling acquire backstory, Captain Hook gains nuance, and as they do, the advantages of age mingle delicately with feelings of abandonment, a nostalgia for innocence, and a hovering shadow of mortality. It’s the ache of loss, gently and eloquently evoked in Liza Lorwin’s stage adaptation, that makes Peter and Wendy such apt material for Mabou Mines.

Which is not to suggest the show is downbeat. At two-and-a-half hours, it will, admittedly, be problematic for really small youngsters. But Lee Breuer’s unfailingly inventive staging is so packed with startling puppet images, eerily effective music by a seven-piece Celtic band flanking the stage, and visual surprises courtesy of designer Julie Archer that even a somewhat drawn-out epilogue (Wendy ceding Neverland to her daughter in a more attenuated way than is entirely necessary) doesn’t curdle the enchantment.

Anchoring it all is a jaw-­dropping multi-character performance accomplished enough to invite comparison to Lily Tomlin in The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe and Anna Deavere Smith in Fires in the Mirror. Kandle has the advantage of a corps of talented puppeteers who unfurl a pirate ship made of bedsheets even as they bring a graceful Neverbird to life, disguise a dog made of rags as a perfectly persuasive crocodile, and have Smee dance a tango that suggests he’s been pilfering Captain Hook’s Caribbean rum. But it’s Kandel’s vocals that bring character to them all and make believers of an entire audience in a place where dreams are born, time is never planned, and a little boy still flies with a grace belying his 103-year youth.