Q&A: ‘Peter Pan & Wendy’ soars into Shakespeare Theatre with modern take

December 15, 2019

Second star to the right and straight on ’til morning — with a magical stop in D.C.

Shakespeare Theatre Company sprinkles pixie dust on the nation’s capital with “Peter Pan and Wendy,” from Dec. 3rd to Jan.12th. The beloved play features an updated adaptation by Lauren Gunderson, who was recently named by American Theatre magazine as the Most Produced Playwright of 2019.

“It fleshes out a bit more of the psychology behind each of these iconic characters,” said Justin Mark, who plays Peter Pan. “It works well on its own like the original one, but I think there were a lot of problems with [the original] as well. I think Lauren Gunderson, the writer, digs a little bit deeper to try to figure out why these people are the way they are and maybe helps some of them change for the better, which is cool.”

“They’re complex characters,” said Sinclair Daniel, who plays Wendy. “They’re not all good, they’re not all bad, they’re flawed, they have their own skills, they have interests, why they are the way they are. It’s more an exploration of humanity, relationships, growth, all the things the original touches on, but in 2019 audiences are a little more hungry for answers. It’s interesting to watch people unfold as people instead of just one thing.”

Based on the iconic story by J.M Barrie, the play follows budding scientist Wendy Darling, who dreams of earning a Nobel Prize. When the magically ageless Peter Pan arrives at her bedroom window, she takes her brothers Michael and John on a flight to Neverland, encountering Tinkerbell, the Lost Boys, Tiger Lily and the dangerous Captain Hook.

“Wendy at the beginning of this show is a young girl in Edwardian England, limited by all the Edwardian norms,” Daniel said. “Her parents say she’s going to finishing school, but she says she’s going to study science. She wants to be an astronomer. … She’s really ahead of her time but not apologetic for it. When Peter Pan comes along, she sees it as an opportunity to study something different that will benefit her career and education.”

Once in Neverland, Wendy’s goals and pursuits naturally evolve.

“When she gets to Neverland she’s still interested in a scientific sense, but she starts to develop this friendship and this connection that becomes just as important, if not more important, than her studies,” Daniel said. “In the original, if you go back and watch it, there’s not too much driving Wendy to do things other than a bit of a crush on Peter and some intrigue, but I think Wendy’s impetus in our version is more interesting.”

How is Peter Pan fleshed out in this version?

“Peter too is updated,” Mark said. “Neverland itself is updated. Neverland is kind of at a breaking point when we first are introduced to it. … Things get crazy in our version. Everything you expect to happen in Neverland goes awry and it’s up to the community in Neverland to fix it. Peter in the traditional sense is always the one to win everything and is the best, but he realizes he can’t be that, that’s it’s impossible to be on your own.”

Derek Smith plays Captain Hook to Tom Story’s Smee and Gregory Wooddell’s Starkey.

“He’s very scary in real life, he’s not acting at all, he just walks on stage from the street and just is Captain Hook, we didn’t even need to get him a costume,” Mark joked. “No, he’s really nice and he’s so funny. We also have very serious scenes with him too and he plays those really well. The whole cast is especially great.”

Perhaps most updated is Tiger Lily, played by Isabella Star LaBlanc.

“She’s way more prevalent than in the original,” Daniel said. “She’s got her own storyline, she’s got a lot of the lines that tie the themes together. It starts out with Wendy, then you meet Peter, then in Neverland Tiger Lily becomes the third member of this trio. She’s really speaking truth to power in a lot of the scenes. She’ll plant seeds and say things to Peter that come back later in the show. She’s one of the wiser characters in the show.”

While Peter, Wendy and Tiger Lily form the main trio of protagonists, you’ll also enjoy comic relief by Wendy’s brothers, Michael and John, who join her on the journey.

“We have Christopher Flaim playing John,” Daniel said. “He takes all of his anxious lines and delivers them with such sincerity. It’s so funny to watch someone be so sincerely nervous. He does such a good job at that. Then we have the incomparable Chauncey Chestnut playing Michael. He’s 12, so he’s the youngest member of the cast. … We’re all playing young people, but to actually have a young person around, he makes things fun.”

Don’t forget Tinkerbell, who is more than just a ball of light flashing around stage.

“Tinkerbell is in our play as a ball of light and also as a human being in Neverland played by Jenni Barber, who is amazing,” Mark said. “At the beginning she’s a ball of light and in Neverland the idea is that she becomes a full-grown person. We too do the clapping of ‘if you believe,’ which is one of my favorite moments in the show. It’s just really rewarding.”

The Tinkerbell clapping is just one of the classic treats of nostalgia.

“It’s funny because we did change so much of the play, but at the same time we kept all of the stuff that makes the play what people like about the play,” Mark said. “That’s really important too, the magic, the believing, the flying, it’s all still there, which is really fun.”

How is the flying effect achieved by director Alan Paul?

“We’re already harnessed up by the time the show starts,” Daniel said. “Underneath our costumes … we’re wearing these big metal diapers that we hook up to wires off stage. It took a while to learn how to be in those — they go around our hips and pull us up from our center of gravity —  but it’s super fun, as you can imagine. … Then we have this big flying sequence, which always seems to get a really nice reaction from people.”

“It’s just so fun,” Mark said. “There’s a lot of technicality to it, but once you’re up there and once you are in the scene and you start to fly around in front of an audience, there’s a suspension of disbelief even for you, which is cool. I don’t even think about being on the wire when I’m flying. I feel like I’m flying and that’s magical.”

The wires are hooked beneath intricate costumes by Loren Shaw.

“I like to imagine that Peter Pan made his clothes, he found them in the forest and he put them together,” Mark said. “It’s sort of exaggerated. Peter for many reasons wants to stand out and be different from other people, so his costume represents that. All the Lost Boys’ costumes are really fun. The Lost Boys feel like they didn’t change their clothes from the streets of London. It’s like the clothes just stayed on them forever in this magical way.”

The costumes symbolically evolve as the show goes on.

“The London beginning of the show, the nursery, is all gray, there’s no real color, we’re wearing white and gray pajamas and slippers,” Daniel said. “Then when we get to Neverland, we’re in color. The idea is that the color has splashed up against our costumes, so now there’s a colorful bow on you, or my nightgown has orange splatter paint on it, as if I’ve crashed into Neverland and the color has wiped off on me.”

The sets similarly evolve thanks to scenic designer Jason Sherwood.

“The set design for the nursery is pretty typical Edwardian, gray scale, beautiful, but pretty realistic where [with] sconces, fireplaces, a toy chest,” Daniel said. “Then the Neverland set looks like an opera, just these huge set pieces. We have Toy Mountain, which is a huge-scale version of the small stack of toys in the nursery. … It’s big, it’s colorful and more than them. Of course we have this huge pirate ship. … It’s just opulent.”

“I like the Neverland set because it doesn’t look real,” Mark said. “You could have made Neverland like a forest, green, lush and overgrown, but this Neverland looks like a dream, and that’s sort of symbolic as the play unravels toward the end. These kids are living in a place that doesn’t look or seem sustainable, so I’ve always liked that about the design.”

Best of all, Gunderson’s modern voice speaks to all generations of fans.

“It’s a good idea to have a writer like her, who is a contemporary writer and writes in a very modern voice, do an adaptation of an old-school children’s story,” Mark said.

“Lauren’s words do a good job of speaking to different demographics of people and different age groups,” Daniel said. “We will get laughs some nights on parts that we’ve never gotten laughs before because there are more 7-year-olds in the audience. Other times the parents find things more funny. It’s interesting because it means that every night will be a different performance and a different reaction. That’s part of the reason why this is such a great family show, because everyone finds something to enjoy.”

The magical elements are especially perfect for the holiday season.

“It’s very much a feel-good story,” Daniel said. “It’s like going to a play date. You go and you see the magic, there’s spectacle, there’s flying, there’s lights, there’s gorgeous music, there’s heart, there’s also some more emotional scenes. … It’s just a nice way to spend time with people. We’re having fun and I think it’s always fun to watch people have fun and be invited into the fun. I think you’ll leave feeling really good.”

“This play is definitely the biggest play I’ve ever done in my life and I’m having the time of my life,” Mark said. “As the audience feels things, I feel it more. It’s this big, epic, technically challenging, exhausting play, but at the same time it’s got this beautiful emotional heart that I’m still discovering and still becoming more aware of as we do it more, so I’m really excited to share it with people.”

Find more details on the theater website. Hear our full conversation below:

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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