"Peter and the Starcatcher" opened with a mystifying preview Thursday Nov. 17 at the Ronald E. Mitchell Theatre and audiences were enchanted by the performer’s childlike sense of play.
The comedic telling of this version of Peter Pan’s origin story lit up the stage in Vilas Hall, both figuratively and literally. Including music and the creative use of movement, lighting and scenery, the audience was fully immersed into the world of the Neverland just minutes into the performance. Enveloped by a talented and emotionally receptive cast, the audience was invited to remember how it feels to play ‘make believe’ with others.
In an interview with the show’s director Jessica Lanius —who teaches movement in the university’s theater department — she said what inspired her most in this show was finding the meaning of growing up after the past three years of the COVID-19 pandemic forcing the world to ‘grow up’ and make difficult decisions.
“There’s something so interesting about the way this story’s told. [It's] like kids in an attic with a trunk. I feel like that resonates with me, I want that for adults always,” said Lanius. “What does it mean to be grown up? Does that mean we don’t get to play anymore? We don’t get to imagine the craziest things like pirates on a ship and Tinkerbell and magic and stardust? It’s sort of like Christmas, it’s believing again, believing that it’s okay to play.”
Lanius believed this show was beneficial for everyone working on it as well as for the audience viewing it.
“There’s a line ‘to have faith is to have wings’ which sounds really cliche, but it’s everything,” Lanius said. “For aspiring actors too, if you believe you will fly, you will go where you want to go. This touches me in a different way and I think it’s because it fills in that question of 'what does it mean to grow up?'”
The creativity and play did not end with the actors, however. The design team of the production worked hard to further the experience in the setting, lighting, costuming and music.
The scenery was designed with immense thought and creativity. As characters rarely — if ever — exit the stage for most of the performance, set designers could rely on actors to be able to use and move props and scenery as a storytelling device. Items such as two red umbrellas, a ladder or a bicycle wheel became heavily important. Pieces of rope and platforms were moved around to create new spaces and brooms with frond leaves attached created the effect of tropical trees lining the stage. The scenery was exactly what the show needed to gain just enough legitimacy, so as to not overthrow the fun, carefree nature of the play.
Though there is not a shortage of compliments to be shared on scenery, the magnificent lighting stole the show. At times throughout the performance, audience members audibly exclaimed at the creations appearing before them due to the lighting effect. The lighting design masterfully used both practical lighting — such as the movable clamp light used as a spotlight or flashlights being shown through large umbrellas to create glowing red eyes — and source lighting — especially in the scene of the Neverland’s sinking and the effect the lighting had on the set with the use of smoke.
Costuming was charming, in that it told the story and who the characters were without being overtly on the nose. The costume change into the mermaid number was a fan favorite and the gorgeous golden gown worn by the teacher dazzled the audience.
Live music was a good choice to enhance the feeling of the show. Since the actors were already invited to break the ‘fourth wall’ by interacting with the audience before the show began and warming up on stage, being able to see and hear from and watch the show along with the live music felt natural. Live music in a ‘play with music’ such as “Peter and the Starcatcher” gives the actors freedom to play and motivate themselves through the band.
Speaking of the actors, Dir. Lanius also stated that it has been a pleasure working with her students in her first time directing a show at this university.
“I have some that I just started teaching, they are taking my class this semester so they’re a bit new to me, but I have a core group that started with me two years ago when I began, so it’s really fun to see them implementing some of the things that I teach in class and kind of being leaders in the space,” said Lanius.
Lanius also said while she learned from and taught the students involved in the production, they were also learning from one another.
“You’ve got all levels in this ensemble, and I think that’s the purpose of university theater,” said Lanius. “It’s not to choose the most spectacular, perfect actors that exist on our campus but rather how do you create a group of people that are going to grow and learn from each other. I feel like we’ve struck a nice balance with that. The cast is awesome. I could not ask for a more generous, talented, willing and positive group of people.”
While all actors made this performance a treasure, there are some stars one might want to keep catching in future productions. Sophomore Francis Faye who flourished as Boy/Peter Pan and it was evident that he embodies the spirit of Pan’s fun and wonder. Freshman Sydney Germany captured the wisdom and youth of Molly; it was easy to cheer for Molly’s success as Germany played the character with grit and grace. Natalie Matthai developed the role of Slank into a lovable yet detestable nemesis through commanding the stage with her walk but feeding into the comedy. Last but not least, senior Reez Bailey hilariously conquered the role of Black Stache, the audience laughed at his scenes without him needing to utter a word.
The show closed on Dec. 4 after 10 performances, five of which were to sold out audiences.