- The Washington Times - Friday, May 4, 2007

Once you get past the flying children and the quicksilver fairy, you come to realize that J.M. Barrie’s play “Peter Pan” is shadowstruck with sorrow, his novel “Peter and Wendy” even more so.

Despite the exhilarating pull of eternal youth, Peter Pan is, in Mr. Barrie’s words, “a careless boy” for whom growing up spoils everything. After age 2, it is pretty much downhill, until in maturity you fold up into yourself like a discarded paper doll, a disappointment to yourself and your children.

The only thing grown-up girls like Wendy Darling are good for, in Peter Pan’s limited view, is to keep cranking out an eternal supply of younger substitute mothers and maids to help him and the Lost Boys out with spring cleaning.

Mabou Mines’ production of “Peter and Wendy,” adapted with a breathless sense of wonder by Liza Lorwin, underscores the melancholy and poignant aspects of Mr. Barrie’s tale of enchantment and stolen children. It’s a brooding, profoundly magical piece that speaks to the power of a single storyteller to conjure up many worlds, many voices.

In “Peter and Wendy,” the Narrator portrays all the voices, and actor Karen Kandel is a stately, Meyerhold-like figure of infinite grace, who possesses more nimbly comic voices than Mel Blanc. She gives Wendy a demure lisp, Peter the sputtery impatience of a rooster in training, the Lost Boys an adorable burbling chatter, while Captain Hook speaks in a sophisticated, Noel Coward drawl and is absorbed with issues of class and declasse behavior (a contrast to the amiable, laid-back Jamaican Smee).

The Narrator is surrounded by veiled puppeteers in cream-colored Victorian garb, who maneuver puppets ranging from the finely carved bunraku and wooden dolls to marionettes and bits of cloth. Although the manipulations of the puppets are plainly visible, their actions and gestures are transporting nonetheless — the lyrical effect is theater magic at its best.

The entire production is seamlessly multicultural, with Miss Kandel (a black actress) portraying the entire English clan of Darlings as well as the denizens of Neverland, a Scottish Peter Pan, island influences in the pirate scenes, Asian puppetry, and everything set to Celtic music. It may sound like a self-conscious bid for “diversity,” but the Mabou Mines troupe imbues everything with a sense of possibilities and magic. Somehow, it all fits together.

The charm of the piece wears thin in scenes that meander, especially in the second act, stretching the show to nearly three hours. You would have to have an unusually poised child to be able to sit through something that long. Some of the puppetry manipulation is awkward, and many of the smaller puppets are lost in the Kreeger space. Others, such as the diligent dog Nana, sometimes seem like nothing more than a pile of rags.

“Peter and Wendy” is a heady, cerebral experience on many levels, at once an escapist fantasy and a meditation on the regret that can come with outgrowing the curiosity, recklessness and impudent insistence on fun of childhood. We lose the best part of ourselves, Mr. Barrie suggests, when we forget how to fly.

***

WHAT: “Peter and Wendy,” adapted and produced by Liza Lorwin

WHERE: Kreeger Theatre, Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, selected noon matinees on Wednesday. Through June 24.

TICKETS: $55 to $74

PHONE: 202/488-3300

WEB SITE: www.arenastage.org MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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