May 10th, 2011

La Loge

Peter and Wendy

Saturday night we saw Mabou Mine's Peter and Wendy at the New Victory Theatre. 

We'd seen it once before, in 1998 in New Haven.  We drove down from Boston just for the performance, at the suggestion of Johnny Cunningham, of Silly Wizard fame, who Ellen knew through Boston Irish music circles.  We both loved the story of Peter Pan, and we knew there were puppets involved and that Johnny had written the music, and other than that, we knew nothing at all.  It was an adventure.

We were enchanted.  The stage was dressed in white, with books and cut-out, stylized furniture that recalled an Edwardian nursery.  A woman came on, African American, tall and graceful, with a mobile face and grave eyes, a picture hat over her closely-cut hair, dressed in cream.   She accepted a book and a cup of tea from a veiled figure, sat on a pile of over-sized books, and began to read:

All children, except one, grow up.  They soon know that they will grow up, and the way Wendy knew was this.  One day when she was two years old, she was playing in a garden, and she plucked another flower and ran with it to her mother.  I suppose she must have looked rather delightful, for Mrs. Darling put her hand to her heart and cried, 'Oh, why can't you remain like this forever!'

This was all that passed between them on the subject, but henceforth Wendy knew that she must grow up.  You always know after you are two.  Two is the beginning of the end.

From that moment on, we sat enchanted and adrift in nostalgia for Childhood Lost.  Between the surreality of the puppets, the gentle melancholy of Cunningham's music, and the aching poignancy underlying the adventure and comedy, we hardly felt the time pass.  I remember coming out onto the dark, quiet sidewalk (New Haven rolls them up and puts them into storage after 10pm), my cheeks tight from tears, unable to speak for the number of things I was feeling.

With the memory of that perfect evening (which went on to drinks with Johnny and the cast in their hotel and a long, somewhat punchy drive home, which I remember as being moonlit, but probably wasn't), when we heard that the same production was coming back to the New Victory Theater in New York, we fell all over ourselves getting tickets.

It is in the nature of live theater that perfect evenings can't be reproduced.  Its ephemeral, mutable nature is one of the things I love most about the theater, but it can lead to disappointment.  This evening, if not perfect, was still a magical experience.  The play itself is as I remembered it--both intelligent and deeply emotional, leisurely and tightly paced, offering something beautiful to look at or listen to every moment of its nearly 3 hour running time.  It is full of wonders for those of us who love puppets:  Nana the extremely doggy brown-rag nursemaid, (who doubled, in a mask and long tail, as a tango-dancing Crocodile); Peter himself, toddler-sized and uncanny; Hook, bald, pale, and angsty; the bits and pieces of laundry and furniture that become the Lagoon, the Jolly Roger, the Wendy house, the Lost Boys' underground hideaway.  The silent attendants who give the principal players life are spectacular.  And Karen Kandel, who narrates and plays Wendy in her own person, and voices all the rest of the parts, is a sorceress, a shaman, a force of artifice--even with a bum sound system that left her trying to project her naked voice over the music until they had to stop the play and fix it and start over, she was never less than wonderful.

And the music?  It's still beautiful, but neither the fiddler nor the female vocalist is, to my ear, as skilled or as expressive as Cunningham or the woman who we heard sing in New Haven.  It may have been the gloss of memory, or the fact that it wasn't Johnny playing, and it can't be, because he died in 2003, and he was a friend, if not a close one, and there's no one like him, and I miss him.  It may have been the bum sound system, which Ellen pronounced muddy and dead and over-loud.  In any case, the music didn't break my heart this time, didn't open up vistas of memories and unrecoverable dreams, didn't make me hate that I'd grown up and learned that actions have consequences and that I'm not the center of the universe and that believing a thing, however beautiful, doesn't necessarily make it so.  But perhaps that's an experience that can only come once and never be recovered, unless, like Peter himself, you live absolutely in the moment, experiencing each adventure as it presents itself as if for the first time.

Carlos and Liz, who we brought with us, loved it a lot, and we had a wonderful time discussing it afterwards.  I wish I'd had my insight that Captain Hook is stuck in adolescence just as Peter is stuck in early childhood then instead of two days later, but that's the way insights work, isn't it?  They come when they come.

One final note.  Looking for reviews of the 1998 Yale Rep production, I came across this, from an interview with Karen Kandel in the Hartford Courant:  ``It still seems to be difficult to market,'' says Kandel of the play. ``After all, what is it? Who is it for? It wasn't specifically made for kids. I think it has this perfect balance so when you have an audience that is filled with 90-year-olds and 5-year- olds, it's like a multigenerational piece of work but, it's hard to get it across. It seems to take people a very long time to come to it. Every time we present the show some place, it's toward the end of the run that people say, `I can't get tickets!' ''  Yeah.  I knew that.  Like a lot of the other stuff I really resonate with, Peter and Wendy is interstitial.