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Review: ‘Peter Pan’ at the Arden Theatre

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Arden Children’s Theatre opens its 20th Anniversary Season with a delightful production of Peter Pan, adapted for the stage by Douglas Irvine, and based on J.M. Barrie’s books. Whit MacLaughlin directs an agile cast in this new and funny take on a classic favorite. In the Arden’s Peter Pan the children do fly, but this production is much more than special effects — it shines with imagination, energetic and nuanced character acting and physical movement.

Emilie Krause, Jo Vito Ramirez, and Ensemble. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Emilie Krause, Jo Vito Ramirez, and Ensemble. Photo by Mark Garvin.

The set, designed by David P. Gordon, is a campground, complete with tent, outdoor restrooms and a trailer. There are three levels of action that occur in the play — underground, at ground level and above on overhead walkways and in the air. Actors also enter from the back of the theater. This suggests travel by ship and by air and involves the audience in this fantasy world, Neverland. Lighting and sound by Thom Weaver and Christopher Colucci, respectively, represent characters or situations, and add realism to the simple set. Tinker Bell, for example, is mostly interpreted through lights and a violin, expertly played by cast member Eliana Fabiyi. Peter Pan’s and Captain Hook’s costumes, designed by Olivera Gajic, in particular deserve mention. They were iconic and eye-catching.

The ensemble of actors is genuinely versatile and adept. Emilie Krause, as Wendy Darling, transitions easily and believably between a teenager and an adult in the retelling of her childhood adventures with Peter Pan. Jo Vito Ramirez is an intriguing Peter Pan. They act like a kid but look like an older adolescent and are more mature than most Peters that I have seen. From an adult perspective this makes the character all the more stirring and potentially tragic. Everyone knows that Peter Pan refuses to grow up, but when played by a child (or a young woman) the effect is less jarring. In this production Peter has the heart and imagination of an 11-year-old in the body of a young person. He is on the threshold of adulthood (as is Wendy), but he refuses to accept it.

Catherine Slusar. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Catherine Slusar. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Catherine K. Slusar made a sympathetic grandmother (Charlotte Darling, Wendy’s mother) and a sinister Captain Hook. Her contrasting portrayals were so good that I did not realize they were the same actor until the end of the play! Charlotte is down to earth and understanding. Meanwhile Captain Hook is a parody that borders on the ridiculous. Slusar delivers his elegant, sarcastic and over the top lines with superb seriousness, while the audience laughs at his inane arrogance.

Interpreting multiple characters, including Peter’s friend and Hook’s pirates, Brandon J. Pierce, Eliana Fabiyi and Leah Walton outdo themselves. Through MacLaughlin’s direction, they are able to create different personalities with minimal props, accessories, vocal changes, gait and stance. Some of these manifestations are instantaneous and that adds to the hilarity.

In sum, this is an enjoyable production because it relies on innovative use of props, set, lights and sound, and engages the senses and imagination. There are unexpected turns in this familiar plot that kept me on the edge of my seat. Although there are dark moments and violence in the original Peter Pan stories, they are downplayed and reenacted with slapstick in this production, making it appropriate for all ages.

The Arden’s Peter Pan is a terrific outing for families with children. After each performance there is a question and answer session with the actors, and then a meet and greet with the cast in the lobby.

Running time: Two hours and 15 minutes, including intermission.

Jo Vito Ramirez. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Jo Vito Ramirez. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Peter Pan plays through January 28, 2018 at Arden Children’s Theatre, performing at The Arden Theatre – 40 North Second Street, in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call the box office at (215) 922-1122, or purchase them online.

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