Full of magic, faeries, aerial sword fights and pirates, the spectacle of Peter Pan has made it one of the most popular dramatic performances since its first in 1904. Carrying on the tradition of flamboyance and incredible stunts, Alberta Theatre Projects is bringing the boy in green tights back for one of their most flare-filled shows of the year. Bob White, ATP's artistic director and the director of the show, claims it's still the same Peter, though it might not be the one everyone remembers.
"The adaptation I've chosen has a lot of the subplots pared down," says White. "There's no Tiger Lilly, which I thought would be a bit dicey in these politically correct days we live in, and there's no mermaids, so we focus on the Peter and Wendy story. Essentially the play is still about relationships. You have two characters, and they both just want different things from each other. Wendy's looking for a boyfriend and Peter's looking for a mother. And if you talk to a lot of women, they'll tell you they find that sort of thing all the time."
Even despite Pan's timeless appeal and theatrical history, the most culturally canonized image of the boy who refused to grow up is still the one perpetuated by Disney. While Pan's pop culture is always something to contend with for anyone producing the show, ATP's Pan will be recognizable to most people, but still stylistically different enough to set it apart from its many film adaptations.
"We always come back to that god damn Disney thing," says White. "People will be coming in expecting to see certain aspects of the play done a certain way, and when they aren't done that way, they might be surprised. But we're hoping, of course, that the way we did things will be the way everyone sees it afterward."
Taking advantage of the Martha Cohen Theatre's in-the-thrust staging, White was able to extend the heavy stylization well beyond the classic characters. With aerial choreographer Sven Johansson's high-flying stunts and Adrian Young's renowned fight choreography, Pan's more fantastic moments will be performed suspended above the audience.
"We've got some pretty brilliant fight sequences," says White. "There's a bit of a teaser just before the intermission, and then, of course, the big one at the end. The system we use for the wirework was designed by a madman, so there ends up being actors flying above the audience, swinging swords three feet away from their heads."
Even with it's flashy presentation, Peter Pan's lasting power is still due mostly to it's extraordinary telling of a simple, relatable coming-of-age story. The cultural cachet that J.M. Barrie's magical adventure holds might raise audience expectations before they even enter the theatre, but conversely, also makes it a tough story to criticize.
"I don't really believe in that whole critic-proof thing," says White. "I mean, if we do a shitty job, people are going to notice. The text has a lot in it about responsibility, making decisions and people growing apart, and [as adults], I think we treat that differently. I don't think it's solemn, but there's definitely a sadness to that last scene when Wendy tells Peter that she can't go back with him."
The adult perspective offered by ATP's production of Peter Pan promises a refreshing enough perspective to be of interest to those familiar with the story, while the intense visual appeal of the performance should hook the audience's younger viewers. As a magic story generations have grown up with, White's interpretation of Barrie's classic invites audiences back to Neverland, and very well could show them something they didn't see before.