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Theater always requires a little imagination. It’s the special ingredient that can transform a few adults on a stage into wide-eyed children exploring a magical Neverland—even if the script they’re following is only a pale shadow of J.M. Barrie’s original classic.
Imagine, for instance, a grand ship caught in the throes of a violent storm. A seemingly innumerable crew races about, bailing water, tightening jibs, yelling over the sound of wind and wood creaking beyond its breaking point. The situation is grim, hope for survival all but lost, but the crew looks for all the world like they’re having the time of their lives.
That’s a scene from roughly the middle of Constellation Theatre’s wild and winsome take on Peter and the Starcatcher. It’s also an apt enough metaphor for the play itself, which threatens to sink under its own weight if the crew lets up for even a moment. Starcatcher, Rick Elice’s adaptation of Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson’s gratuitous prequel for J.M. Barrie’s beloved Peter Pan, is a script that shoots itself in the foot so often that it’s certainly only through a bit of magic, and a lot of gleeful hard work from the Constellation team, that it not only stays afloat, but manages to be a thoroughly entertaining adventure.
Though Starcatcher spends a lot of time attempting to occlude its exact ties to Peter Pan (you’ll never guess who a spritely, unnamed orphan boy turns out to be), it serves well enough as a prequel. Act one is spent largely setting up some brand new characters and a new protagonist in the form of a plucky young heroine, Molly (an enchantingly spirited Megan Graves), who is joining her father (Alex Vernon) on a quest from the Queen to deliver a mysterious chest across the sea. Having a strong female lead is one of many touches meant to modernize Pan (changing the island tribes from stereotypical Native Americans to stereotypical Italians is, ostensibly, another such improvement). The script essentially squanders whatever girl power that choice might garner by calling for the rest of the dozens of characters in Starcatcher to be played by men. Modernization problems aside, act one relies on frequent Greek chorus-like narration, a choice that would be wonderful in a play performed for the blind, but which grates on the nerves when the audience can see what is being described to them just fine.
Constellation pulls off nothing short of magic not only in making the play work but also in making it an awful lot of fun. Set designer A.J. Guban has created a set with surprising depth and cleverly hidden features in Source Theatre’s small black box theater, and director Kathryn Chase Bryer makes full and cunning use of all the nooks and crannies (including hiding a just-invisible-enough one-man orchestra pit onstage for the play’s handful of musical numbers). The stage will often transition from near-empty to bustling with pirates in seconds and from the deck of a ship to a fairly vivid Neverland over intermission.
About halfway through the night, the script finally gets its sea legs. After an explosive act one finale and a hilarious act two opener featuring a mermaid serenade, the production stops playing coy about how all its new characters and themes fit into the Pan universe and springs its characters from the cramped confines of their ships onto an enchanted island. The anachronistic jokes (including some very timely quips about “alternative facts” and leadership in name only that have clearly been added since the play premiered in 2009) start to really hit their marks, and with a lot more room to move around (both by plot and via a slightly deeper stage) the cast has full reign to cross swords or fly about or, in the case of a hilariously incompetent, power-hungry pirate captain (Michael John Casey), to chew scenery as much as they please. A touch of inspired puppetry in the form of a bird that springs to life from a broken mirror and a certain gigantic crocodile rounds the whole thing out for a thoroughly fun adventure.
For all the questions (whether anyone asked them or not) that Peter and the Starcatcher answers about the origin of Neverland, it never really gets around to addressing why people craving a show about pirates, fairies, mermaids, and flying wouldn’t just seek out the classic Peter Pan. Constellation, at least, does the heavy lifting of answering that question on the play’s behalf and turns it into a roundly enjoyable night of theater.
At Constellation Theatre Company to March 12. Source Theatre,1835 14th St NW. $20-$45. (202) 204-7741. constellationtheatre.org.