‘Peter and the Starcatcher’ at Walnut Street Theatre

A golden grotto of star stuff, and other gender issues

Peter and the Starcatcher at the Walnut Street Theater is a night of fun entertainment. It is, in part, the story of how Peter Pan came to be the boy who “won’t grow up,” and it’s filled with malapropisms, bad puns, and outrageous coincidences. The over-the-top production manages a complicated plot involving pirates, treasure chests, singing mermaids, and fierce island tribesmen in a way that keeps us laughing for most of the evening.

Before Wendy, there was Molly. Shuchman and O’Rourke. (Photo by Mark Garvin)

Although this play is the origin tale for Peter Pan, Peter is really incidental to the story. Lord Aster (Dan Hodge) has arranged for two ships to head to Rundoon. The Wasp is carrying a trunk filled with treasure and the Neverland is carrying his daughter and a decoy trunk filled with sand. Of course, things don’t go smoothly. The trunks are switched, Lord Aster is captured by pirates, and Molly (Michaela Shuchman) goes in search of her father. The ships crash and everyone winds up on an island where more merriment ensues. Along the way, Molly meets Peter (Brandon O’Rourke) and they become friends.

The jokes are sitcom-paced and incessant, and some familiar dramatic actors demonstrate they were made for comedy. Watching Ian Merrill Peakes wow us as Black Stache, the evil pirate who will become Captain Hook, shows us his talent was wasted in last season’s MacBeth. The romance between Mrs. Bumbrake and Alf lets Dave Jadico and Dave Bardeen strut their comic stuff, while Michaela Shuchman (Molly Aster) holds her own as a 13-year-old girl who saves the day.

The set by scenic designer Todd Edward Ivins manages to encompass two ships and an island without needing to change scenery. The clever use of model ships and picture frames that double as doors, boxes and prisons is effective.

Enjoyable, but . . .

Enjoyable as the show is, there are some troubling elements. In a world where women’s roles are scarce enough, here is a show with two major women’s roles, yet one is played by a man. Yes, that’s part of the fun, but really, guys — Melissa McCarthy has shown us that women can be as raunchy as any dude; why can’t they get some of the fun parts as well?

Which leads to a second concern. This is a show with a lot of crossdressing jokes. A manly man in an apron speaking in a falsetto is always good for a laugh. The trope will probably continue no matter how accepting we are of trans issues, but unless we call it out when we see it, we’ll continue to pretend it just doesn’t matter.

And while I’m at it — the plot is set in motion by a father who sends his daughter off on a slow ship as a decoy for pirates, while he boards the faster, more comfortable ship himself. What’s up with that? And did I mention that the boys are kept in a box and fed worms?

That’s not to say that everything has to conform to our evolving views on sexuality and morality — we’d have to ban an awful lot of historical work if that were the case — but neither should we ignore these issues when they arise.

On the other hand, sometimes I just want to go to the theater and laugh at roll-top desks that become crocodiles and actors who talk about “splitting rabbits [hairs].” 

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