The thing you gotta love about prequels is that they're kind of like watching reruns of the old Columbo TV show. In that series starring Peter Falk, you were always clued in on who the murderer was.
Prequels offer the same feeling since the audience knows where the story is headed. Peter and the Starcatcher, now at Dobama Theatre, is a prequel for Peter Pan, a story that lives in our very chromosomes. Which is why this encore production at Dobama uses a plethora of theatrical tricks to enliven this play by Rick Elice with music by Wayne Barker.
With inventive stagecraft firmly in place, thanks to director Melissa Therese Crum (who steps in for Nathan Motta, who directed last year), the story is still stubbornly obtuse. There is so much exposition thrown into the first act, one wishes that there were a time out called and a referee could emerge and clear up some basic facts.
These facts involve two British ships, the elegant and speedy Wasp helmed by Captain Scott and the dumpy Neverland, each headed in different directions. Each are carrying identical-looking trunks that were switched at the dock by Captain Slank of the Neverland (played by a snarly Brett DiCello); one trunk contains the Queen's riches, which is carted off to the Neverland, and the other trunk is filled with sand, which is now on the Wasp.
Also on board the Neverland are three dragooned orphan boys, one who doesn't even have a name but is eventually called (ahem) Peter. Meanwhile the Wasp is infiltrated by a gaggle of pirates intent on stealing the Queen's booty, led by the fearsomely limp-wristed Black Stache, named after his snot mop. He will eventually earn the name Captain Hook due to a tragic (and hilarious) trunk mishap.
There is also Molly, the precocious daughter of Lord Aster. He is on the Wasp to escort the Queen's trunk to the far-off kingdom of Rundoon. There are all kinds of potentially interesting elements at work during Act 1, including a magical amulet, "starstuff" that lets people be who they want to be, a flying cat and other things too numerous to mention. All of this is meant to recreate an imaginary world where anything is possible.
Trouble is, too many things are possible and because it's never clear which ship the actors are on, and since they play multiple roles, it all begins to glom together. Anyhow, the ships are soon reunited, Molly rubs elbows with Peter-to-be and starts playing "mother" to the lost boys. So by the second act, the plot and characters of Peter Pan begin taking shape.
As the central couple in this enterprise, Luke Wehner as Peter and Molly Israel as Molly have moments when their characters resonate fully. Unfortunately, neither actor has an abundance of stage charisma, a necessary element when the task is to thoroughly involve the audience in your series of dilemmas. There's a distance between the audience and these two performances that no amount of clever staging (umbrellas popping up from tiny trapdoors in the floor and a crocodile in silhouette with glowing red eyes!) can cover up.
On the other hand, the happily shameless Christopher Bohan as Black Stache once again crawls into the pocket of the audience and stays there. His every gesture is operatic and his every utterance is pronounced with error-prone precision. Sure, many of his malaprops aren't that funny ("you're splitting rabbits" for splitting hairs), but Bohan invests them with such import you find yourself laughing in spite of it.
His band of rascals is led by ever-loyal Smee, portrayed by the inventive Andrew Gorell, whose character reaches either its zenith or nadir, and maybe both, when impersonating a recently disemboweled stomach flopping on the floor. James Rankin also triggers laughs as uptight Mrs. Bumbrake, Molly's nanny who develops a liking for sailor Alf, a continually farting Robert Ellis. Tim Keo also adds some zip in his two roles, one of which is the island king with a priceless name: Fighting Prawn.
But Luke Brett as Prentiss and Shaun O'Neill as Ted leave a lot of laughs un-chortled due to their timid approach to their roles as Peter's pals. And the fine actor Jason Leupold is saddled with the thankless role of bland Lord Aster, as is Nathan A. Lilly with his assignment as often trussed and gagged Captain Scott.
Yes, there are fart jokes and lots of yelling and running around, which you'd think would make this a perfect show for kids. But at a running time of almost three hours, with one intermission, it's a long sit through a complicated story, even for adults. And by the end, no one could fault an audience member for wanting to grab a handful of starstuff so she could be what she really wanted to be. Gone.Peter and the Starcatcher
Through Dec. 31 at Dobama Theatre, 2340 Lee Rd., Cleveland Heights, 216-932-3396, dobama.org
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