Peter Pan’s Shadow

Giau Truong

“You have all these archetypical characters, and you look at them and wonder how they became what they are,” says Jeremy Menekseoglu, referring to the timeless tale of Peter Pan. J.M. Barrie’s story has been adapted and revised many times since its initial publication in 1902, but whereas most versions of the story are geared towards younger audiences, Menekseoglu has taken a slightly darker approach in “Peter Pan’s Shadow.”

Envisioned as a trilogy, “Part 1: Neverland” is currently in production at Dream Theatre. The theater, no stranger to the macabre, has put on a play that subverts archetypes and traditional expectations, disturbing viewers with the violence of familial and gender relations. Unlike its source material, “Neverland” is no children’s story–or, if it is, this adaptation shows us that the best children’s works possess deeply unsettling elements.

The opening scenes, set in London’s Kensington Gardens, quickly establish the play’s shifting balance between childish playfulness and emotional intensity. Peter Pan is an arrogant, often sadistic figure that domineers the fairy Tinker Bell, who is deeply in love with him. Routinely assuming fictitious roles where Tinker is his servant, in one scene Peter declares himself “Butcher Pan” after wresting a knife from Tinker that she had nabbed from the local butcher.

Such absurd episodes in the play, which could function as comic relief, instead highlight Peter’s desire to control those close to him. As Peter and Tinker’s relationship moves into more serious territory, Tinker reveals her long-standing unrequited love for Peter, a love that he is too self-absorbed and puerile to return. Here, Peter’s adventurous immaturity is never charming, as it is in other adaptations of the story; instead, he avoids responsibility to ward off pent-up despair and loneliness.

In part because “Neverland” sets up the dramatic arc of the trilogy–parts two and three will be put on in May and July, respectively–the early sections of the play are weighed down with exposition. After having run away as a little boy, Peter returns home in search of his mother. Inspired by a production of “The Pirates of Penzance,” Peter instead decides he wants to become the Pirate King, and along with his younger sister (who is unaware that he is her long-lost brother) gets flown away to Neverland.

A welcome dose of lighthearted humor and energy is injected after the intermission with the introduction of Captain James Hook (a merciless killer, though a bit of a dunce) and his witty and perceptive first mate Smee. The play soon takes a more serious turn, however, and its sexual and dark psychological undertones grow stronger. Peter’s revelation to his sister that they are siblings causes her to transform into his shadow, and though an innocent and well-choreographed scene of shadow mimicry follows, we learn that the shadow now seeks revenge against Peter. By the end, Tinker’s love for Peter descends into further self-sacrifice. Wendy enters the play in the last scene, surprising Peter (and Tinker) with her daring forwardness.

“Neverland” is minimally staged, with only a few props in each scene, but a projector behind the stage casts a variety of background images stylized to resemble  children’s book illustrations. At one point, Hook and Smee are silhouetted behind the projector, absent but for the shadows they cast. Elsewhere, characters move around throughout the audience, immersing viewers in the fantastical aura of the performance.

Mishelle Apalategui, who plays the nominal hero, is particularly effective as Peter in motion, squatting and darting like a limber athlete about the stage, and Annelise Lawson’s Tinker is a complex, if wide-eyed damsel in distress. At times, the more dramatic moments feel strained beneath the weight of emotion. Yet the unexpectedness of these scenes keeps the play disturbing without sinking into melodrama.

For all that, the play intrigues, and those interested in more subversive works will be moved by this performance. The next two plays in the trilogy should plunge more deeply into the dark, amplifying what was the strength of this first installment: shaking  perceptions of the boy who does not want to grow up.

Dream Theatre, 556 W. 18th St. Through March 4. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 pm. Sunday, 7pm. $18. (773)552-8616.

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