Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
Christopher Fitzer has created a fenced-in, run-down, neighborhood playground one might see in the projects where kids themselves have built pieces of it through the years. Weathered-wood structures resembling jungle gyms and tree houses; a swinging bridge, seesaw, and rope swing; and many nooks and crannies where toy trucks and old trunks have long been abandoned become the stage and props for the enthusiastic, energized cast. Director Jeffrey Lo orchestrates the story's telling in such a way that it often feels there is no script but that these kids are making up the story as they go, based on something they have heard others tell in the past.
Their tale begins in England in 1885 where two ships are about to leave for some faraway kingdom called Rundoon. Lord Aster is set to sail on the Wasp, the fastest ship in the British fleet, to deliver a trunk with precious cargo for her Majesty, Queen Victoria ("God save the Queen," the entire cast chimes). Because he knows this is a dangerous journey, he sends his thirteen-year-old daughter Molly and her devoted nanny Mrs. Bumbrake on a slower ship, the Neverland. Unbeknownst to him, the crooked captain of the second ship switches an identical decoy trunk (one full of sand) for the one full of supposed treasure and loads it onto the Neverland. Along with Molly and her nanny, he also loads on three orphan boys, sold to him by a wicked schoolmasterboys he means to deliver to the King of Rundoon to be fed to a snake-monster. Those boys (Ted, Prentice, and a no-name boy the others call "Mule") are locked away in the ship's boughs as "pigs," to be fed live worms. Fortunately for them, an adventurous and always curious Molly will discover the boys, becoming instantly their "mother" who will feed them well and tell them their first-ever bedtime story. (Are you beginning to pick up future, Peter Pan references?)
The switch of the two trunks becomes a surprise at sea for members of the Wasp's crew, who turn out to be pirates, there to capture the treasure. That their leader Black Stache is decades late to be as world famous as, say, his namesake of sorts, Blackbeard, is just the beginning of his bumbles and stumbles. After discovering the mix-up of trunks, he and his loyal sidekick Smee set course in the faster ship to overtake in speed and then by force, the Waspsetting up a tall tale of adventure that any boy might relish but one that stars as the hero, a girl named Molly.
As the high seas tale unfolds amidst hurricanes and ships breaking apart, father and daughter communicate in the language of extinct dodos via a magic amulet each wears. The amulets, like the trunk now on the Wasp, contains "star stuff," bits of falling stars that have landed on earth and have the magical powers to fulfill any wish, for good or evil. They are two of six-and-a-half "Starcatchers" in the entire world (Molly being the half), whose job now is to hide the "stuff" far away in a land where no bad guy can find it.
But the worst of bad guys (or at least he would like to believe he is), Black Stache (so named for his debonair handlebar mustache) means to intercept that trunk, which he is sure contains jewels. Prone to more mixing of words than the famous Mrs. Malaprop herself and full of anachronistic one-liners that only Smee seems to appreciate, Black Stache only wants that treasure so that "from now on, it'll be nothing but luxury cruises and the odd America's Cup for me." Will Springhorn, Jr. time and again comes close to stealing the entire show as the evil pirate who is hard not to like. He does his best to be mean, but with Smee (an adorable, good-natured ball of fun as played by Dan Demers) as his "straight man," he becomes more of an ongoing stand-up comedian that is a cross between Red Skelton, Carol Burnett, and George Burns. With lines like "We haven't got all night, Smee ... Some people have paid for nannies and sippy cups," he draws many laughs with a face that is cartoonish in exaggeration, with a body that moves with wild aplomb, and with a voice that will someday be perfect as Captain Hook's. When the moment arrives that will necessitate a hook for a hand in his future, Mr. Springhorn brings the cast's storytelling to a halt with his repeated, pained "Oh, my God's, " leaving everyone on stage grimacing and everyone in the audience howling in laughter.
Black Stache's ultimate goal is to find a great hero to battle him forever as the ultimate villain. The most unlikely of heroes turns out to be "Mule," whom the pirate renames Peter. Sean Okuniewicz underplays in all the right ways this shy boy whose self-confidence begins slowly to grow once Molly begins to notice him and treat him as somebody more than just a nobody. He tells Molly early on, "When I was a boy, I dreamed I could fly; eventually we dream other dreams ... nothing lasts forever." At that point, Peter has no idea the adventures that this journey will open up for him, fighting pirates, out-tricking a Mollusk king, and encountering with mermaids. All will help to change his life, find him a home, and make his dreams come true. Sean Okuniewicz transforms before our eyes from a dirty lump in the corner no one would ever notice to a boy who is living out every kid's dream of storybook escapades, exploits, and escapes. And in this telling, Peter does so with a plastic baseball bat for his conquering sword and playground equipment as his island mountains to climb.
These two adversaries, who are just beginning their battles full of shenanigans and high jinx that kids for generations to come will relish, are surrounded by a cast who, to a person, plays each part with joy, grist, heart and fun. Adrienne Kaori Walters is Molly Aster, a girl with the head smarts and physical prowess to lead the orphan boys into enterprises they could never imagine going, all backed with a curiosity and drive that shows in her wonder-filled looks and grown-up (for thirteen) voice and mannerisms, always full of boundless determination to save the world, her father, and her new friends. Ms. Walter's Molly is a winner, with the audience loving it when she interprets her father's Norse (no, not Morse) code by clicking off Norwegian phrases in a voice with all the right ups and downs one would expect to hear in the fjords.
Her nanny Mrs. Bumbrake is the delightful Heather Orth, who loves her Molly but finds she also loves a salty sailor named Alf (a big-grinning, lovable Tasi Alabastro) who is prone to flatulence and to feeling Mrs. Bumbrake's bum with his wandering hand. Lord Aster, Molly's father, is a wonderful mixture of English proper and quirk as ably played by Scott Solomon, a man who gets his daughter to do what he wants by promising, "If you're good, I'll teach you porpoise." Peter's friends, who fast become both Molly's pals and her children of sorts are the oft pompous and braggart Prentiss (Drew Reitz), who is also afraid of his own shadow, and the always hungry, food-obsessed Ted (Wes Gabrillo), who spends much of his high adventure hilariously trying to figure out how to eat a pineapple.
Perhaps the character who is the biggest crowd favorite (apart from the delightfully evil Black Stash) is an unnamed cat (Brittany Marie Pisoni). Her only lines are an occasional "mew," but her kitty stretches and cuddles, looks of sudden shock and smirks of all-knowing, and cat eyes popping from her skull when she wakes up finding herself flying, all become special moments in this play-lot story tailored by this company to thrill both kids and adults.
Besides aforementioned kudos to Mr. Fitzer for his scenic design, the same shout-out must go to Kevin Stanford as properties designer and Y. Sharon Peng as costume designer. Kids' toys and discarded household odds and ends become everything from man-eating crocodiles to a Mollusk king's scepter; and Christmas bows and mop heads become ways to create mermaids while a Pittsburgh Pirates sock hat becomes Smee's way of looking mean and threatening (along with his wildly colored socks worn under floppy sandals). Michael Palumbo's lighting creates a magical atmosphere that can turn scary at any moment, all to befit a tale told by kids; and Matt Vandercook's sound makes farts and growls equally funny and real.
Wayne Barker has written a number of songs that periodically pop up in the play (mostly sung a capella), none of which is any funnier that the show-stopping opening of the second act when a kick-line of former fish explain how they became mermaids.
So many things work perfectly to make Hillbarn's Peter and the Starcatcher a unique outing, in which every minute tends to reveal something else just pulled from an attic's box of lost wonders and used spontaneously to help tell the story. The first act flies by, which makes it a little disappointing that the second act often feels like we have moved into a slow-motion version of what is supposed to occur. Something happens either in the director's choices or in the script's petering out (sorry for the pun) such that the rambunctious energy so prevalent in the first half is often lost, especially as we move into an ending that seems to go on forever. Hopefully, some slight corrections will be made as the run continues because this wonderful cast is fully capable of moving back into warp-speed realms to shave some minutes off the two hours, thirty and to inject more frenetic fun that lasts from beginning to end.
Peter and the Starcatcher, through February 4, 2018, at Hillbarn Theatre, 1285 East Hillsdale Boulevard, Foster City CA. Tickets are available online at hillbarntheatre.org or by calling 650-349-6411.