Not Another Happy Ending

The lure of the story of Peter Pan is the promise of adventure propped up with outlandish characters in a paradisiacal setting. (The rainbow slide is on the other side of the island, in case you were wondering). It’s the promise of a complete suspension of belief, in an utterly magical environment, and like all the best magic, there’s a little darkness there, too.

Peter Pan, by J.M. Barrie, is the tale of forever-child Peter, who lives in Neverland, located “just beyond the second star on the right and straight on ’til morning.” He’s the leader of the Lost Boys and the enemy of Captain Hook. Pan is the catalyst for endless adventures, a friend to a fairy, able to fly. And yet, he does so need a mother.

“Peter Pan is a tragic figure,” says playwright Jason Woods. Woods is mounting a staged reading of the classic—a tale he’s tackled in different ways for the last nine years. His most recent adaptations, in 2015, sold out and were described as “absolutely magical for adults and supernatural for children.”

Though this won’t be a full-scale production, it’s already shaping up to be much more than actors sitting around a table dramatically feeling their way through a script.

In his production, Woods is director, songwriter, composer and head prop-master. And in this production, the prop-master almost takes center stage. Woods’ version of Peter Pan turns the characters of Nana the dog and the Hook-hungry crocodile into life-sized puppets animated by Woods’ daughter, Hannah. The puppets give voice to the silent but integral roles the two animals play. The croc, with its ticking and tocking, is thought to represent the relentlessness of time, even in this magical place. The dog, traditionally a symbol of fidelity, could be construed as the Darling children’s tether to London. On stage, the puppets harness the actors to Peter Pan’s world.

“She just made this magical,” Woods said of Nana’s interactions with the cast. He also noted that he thought a puppet would be more interesting than a human in a dog suit. (“Those just never work.”) Later, when Folio Weekly meets Nana, Woods brings her to life with a full-body wiggle.

“I get excited when people meet her for the first time,” he says.

The croc has its own spirit, too. Massive and vaguely mechanical, it moves through space like a malevolently smug submarine.

Woods says that he was cautious in employing puppetry because, in this production, he is more interested in the power of suggestion. He wants the spectators witnessing this to fill in a few blanks: “I’m inviting the audience in for a collaboration.”

Watching the actors work through the requirements of their roles—from the arrogant charisma of Captain Hook (played by Joshua Taylor) to the sex pot(ish) absurdity of Mermaid Moll (Lee Hamby)—makes clear that a part of the timelessness of Pan is its adaptability to new generations.

“Like imagination, there are no real consequences in Neverland,” observes actor Stephen Dare, who reads the role of Michael Darling. He’s talking about the cultural shift that took place in order “to allow” Barrie to write the tale. “In the 1850s, for the first time, there’s a definition of childhood, as a distinct period of life. Up until then, children has been expected to be tiny adults.”

Other scholars have posited that, in addition to “growing up,” Barrie was thinking about glamour masquerading as death, or possibly meditating on memory, especially how the journey to Neverland might reflect the twilight zone between waking and sleep (hypnagogia). The author himself reportedly said that the Pan character was partially based on his older brother David, who’d died in an ice-skating accident at 13 years, 364 days old. David was described by his family as the “forever boy.”

For his part, Dare was drawn to the part of the youngest and most cynical of the children in the story because “he sees the world as it is—he kind of cuts through the crap.” Michael is the kid who knows it all but still isn’t allowed to be in on all of the best adventures (just like in London), and is unimpressed with Pan’s domain.

“He’s somewhat disappointed about getting to Neverland because it’s just trees and tropical paradise,” says Dare.

In casting Peter Pan, Woods explains, “Everyone was hand-picked.” He wrote specific roles with specific actors in mind. “I was thinking about people who were missing being on the stage and I had been itching to direct.”

Because Peter Pan is in the public domain—Barrie wrote it in 1904—it gives Woods a greater latitude in his interpretation of it. He’s even added a new character: Mermaid Moll, queen of the mermaids. She’s played by Lee Hamby (one of the first people the director approached). Woods has written several songs for this mermaid, including the inimitable “Yasss Queen.” (“How can I say no to someone writing me a song called ‘Yass Queen’?” laughs Hamby.)

Originally, Woods planned to have Hamby play Smee (Hook’s right-hand man). Hamby’s Smee and Taylor’s Captain Hook were to have been an odd couple: At more than six feet tall, Hamby towers over Taylor. After about a few hours of consideration—as Hamby recalls—Woods got back to him, saying, “‘Well, I think we’re going to have you play someone else. How about you play Mermaid Moll?’ ” For the actor, that seemed like even more fun. “The cast is all the amazing people in Jacksonville … How could I pass?”

Further, Hamby made the point that “doing another happy ending [play] isn’t that interesting.” And for those familiar with the Barrie version of the tale, the finale is bittersweet. When asked about this choice, Woods said, “I didn’t want to write this down to kids; you don’t do that.”

A part of the effectiveness of this staged reading is the balance between a richness of detail and a sparseness of staging. This is reflected in the way Woods uses language. There’s what might best be described as a kind of embroidery of sound and texture, nonsense words abutting evocatively dated ones, and the result is a narrative informed by the history of the text that still nods to the history of the play. That is to say, there are delightful surprises, but they don’t fly in on strings.

So much in the performance relies on the charisma and chemistry of the actors. This is especially evident with Hook and Smee (Christopher Watson). “A stylish villain is a very hard thing to ignore,” notes Dare. He’s right. Though Pan is the hero, it is impossible to look away from Taylor’s Hook; he holds the stage like, well, like a pirate lord.

This performance of Peter Pan is presented as a benefit for Theatre Jacksonville. In conversation, Woods talks about the costs associated with mounting shows, from the fiscal to the emotional. It’s a daunting dilemma: how to marry the professionalism of talented artists with the sparse funding available in this city.

For Woods, the answer is (partially) to design a show where he can manage his time and resources. “A lot of people in community theater very generously give their time. I’m not always able to volunteer …[but] I’ve been thinking about wanting to direct so I said, ‘how would it be if we did a benefit?’” Woods decided on the structure of a reading and even so, he said, “There was no way we’d be staying in our seats.”

Returning to the abracadabra of the performance, when asked how he assembled Nana and the croc together, Woods replies, “Some metal, some magic and some string.” It seems an apt description of the show itself. After all, Peter Pan is ultimately about seemingingly sleight-of-hand transformations.