Soulpepper & Bad Hats Theatre/Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie, adapted by Fiona Sauder and Reanne Spitzer, music by Landon Doak, directed by Severn Thompson, Young Centre, Dec. 8, 2018 to Jan. 5, 2019. Tickets available at 416.866.8666, soulpepper.ca, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bad Hats Theatre’s production of Peter Pan is the quintessential example of how imaginative theatre artists can create an enchanting show on a minuscule budget.
It is no surprise that Peter Pan cleaned up at the 2017 Dora Awards in the Theatre for Young Audiences Division, winning for Outstanding Production, Ensemble and Direction. The ever-enterprising Soulpepper picked up Peter Pan for its holiday Family Festival last year, and the giant hit is back at the Distillery Historic District for a repeat visit, and long may it reign.
Bad Hats Theatre is one of those self-contained, independent theatre companies that is filled with talent. Everyone does everything — literally. They all act, sing and play instruments interchangeably. Fiona Sauder performs Peter Pan, but she also adapted the script from the beloved J.M. Barrie novel. Reanne Spitzer, her co-adapter, performs the multiple roles of Tinkerbell/Mrs. Darling/Starker, and is also the choreographer. Landon Doak, who wrote the music, is also onstage as Michael Darling. Sauder is also a Bad Hats co-artistic director along with Matt Pilipiak (Mr. Smee/Old Man and fight captain), and Victor Pokinko (John Darling). In other words, Bad Hats is a force to be reckoned with both offstage and on. These guys probably do windows as well.
Right from the get-go, the ensemble revs up the energy level. For example, as the audience comes in, the actors take turns manning the instruments, or frolicking among themselves, or talking to the children. Every Peter Pan production needs a great Capt. Hook and a luminous Wendy, and in Graham Conway and Lena Maripuu, this ensemble has perfect incarnations. Conway is the great Cyril Richard redux, while Maripuu is both sweet and feisty at the same time. In fact, all the actors, particular Sauder’s Peter Pan, show bite when needed which takes away from any potential cloyingness. A small budget means a small cast, so there are only four Lost Boys (Jocelyn Adema, Matthew Finlan, Richard Lam, and Tal Shulman). At a certain point, Pilipiak, who functions as the storyteller (perhaps Barrie?), tells the Lost Boys that they have to play the pirates as well, so out come eye patches and head scarves as well as exaggerated pirate voices and menacing postures, which is absolutely hilarious. The ensemble also does an okay job with the faux English accents.
Severn Thompson’s direction is breathtaking in its conceit. What do you do if you have no money for harnesses and rigging but Peter Pan and the Darling children have to fly? You have the rest of the cast raise them up. What if you don’t have the cost for special effects to create a tiny fairy? You cover a tennis ball with glitter, and throwing it from person to person becomes Tinkerbell (with actor Spitzer spouting fairy gibberish from the sidelines). Need to show the Darling children’s nursery? Have the three actors lay their heads on a trunk and cover them with a blanket, and voilà, you have beds. How do you create the illusion of the Lost Boys’ underground home? Two actors lift a trunk while the others crawl under it. It is also amazing what a painted sheet can become — a bed cover, a sailing ship, the lagoon itself. And who needs a crocodile when the cast has arms that can simulate a croc’s huge jaws? With every twist and turn of the plot, Thompson has manufactured a fresh stage picture that is surprising, even startling, but always captivating.
In adapting the script, Sauder and Spitzer have cleverly included some of Barrie’s wry humour from the novel, which anchors this Peter Pan squarely in the original text, giving the production a stamp of authenticity. Doak’s songs are a bizarre mix of doo-wop, Latin rhythms and lullabies, but they work. Amy Marie Wallace’s production design does wonders with a few set pieces, like trunks and chests, while her costumes demonstrate that simple can be effective. Ken MacKenzie does manage to throw in some special lighting despite the open nature of the acting space.
The sheer exuberance of the cast is all-embracing. Anyone of any age who attends this vibrant performance is going to find his or her inner child. That’s a guarantee.