Published in KPBS On Air Magazine November 1995
Will Peter Pan ever grow up? Will Sledgehammer Theatre??
The marriage of the two boggles the mind (“Peter Pan” at St. Cecilia’s, November 5-26).
Will it translate into an Oedipal triangle, with Wendy as wished-for mother/lover to Peter? Or will this be a modern fable of a boy/man, and his fantasy Madonna (Wendy) and Whore (Tinkerbell)? Or perhaps a delicate Peter, afraid to be hurt, a kissing cousin to those vulnerable gay men Tennessee Williams wrote into his fragile female characters. Will this Peter have a monstrously different internal and external persona — the attractive inversion of Caliban and the Elephant Man? Or all of the above? With Sledgehammer, anything can happen. And it probably will.
Scott Feldsher, Sledgehammer co-founder, chief Bad Boy and artistic director, is suffering from the “post-30’s blues.” (He hit the deadly digit in April 1994). Not long ago, when he revisited the Disney film, “Peter Pan,” he thought, “God! This is my life!” And then, the director in him said, “I have to do it now or I’ll be too old, too grown up. There are too many grown-ups running the world, too many adults running theaters. We need Peter Pan to run theaters. And we’re still here, holding the fort.”
Among other epithets that have been hurled at the edgy, risk-taking Lords of the Sledge — misogynist, self-indulgent, excessively bilious, aggressively in-your-face (“We’re not ‘the’ Sledgehammer Theatre,” co-founder/executive director Ethan Feerst recently told American Theatre magazine, “we’re ‘Sledgehammer Theatre.’ We’re a verb.”) — callow and jejune would also, at times, be apt.
So what better vehicle than J.M. Barrie’s 1904 play about The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up? The story was a smashing success, and its namesake a pop icon, from the moment they appeared in London, with the renowned Nina Boucicault (daughter of acclaimed dramatist Dion Boucicault) in the title role. She has been followed by a long list of distinguished actresses.
Going, as always, against the grain, Sledgehammer will have a male (Michael Hummel) play the lead. Sticking closer to the original, though, they will use Barrie’s 1928 published version of the script. This appealed to Feldsher because the early Peter is “much darker, more sardonic” than the spritely little androgynous, green-tighted flyer we’ve come to know and love. In the ’28 edition, Barrie included an epilogue, “When Wendy Grew Up — An Afterthought.”
Using that as a departure point, Feldsher bookends his production with the epilogue, beginning with grownup Wendy telling her adventure tales to her daughter Jane, which then segues into the main story, and ends back at the Wendy-Jane nursery, with Peter re-entering through the window, just as he did 21 years before. Because the stage directions are “absolutely beautiful,” Feldsher will have them read by a narrator — the Crocodile — which he conceives as “kind of a cross between Dr. Seuss and Rod Serling.”
Overall, the production (not surprisingly) will be “very sexual, very erotic, with a dark undertone.” To Feldsher, Peter is the “classic case of a boy abandoned by his mother. He’s very distrustful of adults, and women especially. He longs for intimacy but doesn’t want to make a commitment or be hurt. He is forgetful; he makes no attachments. He’s kind of hard, callous, cold.” Feldsher pauses, then laughs. “Classic male behavior,” he adds.
Peter is pursued by two women: Tinkerbell, “a very sexy little fairy,” and Wendy, “a more wholesome, constricted, nurturing type, an earth mother…. He doesn’t know how to deal with them. He doesn’t give Tinkerbell the time of day, but he’s starting to have these desires toward Wendy. Deep down, though, because she’s a woman, he knows he can’t trust her.
“My approach isn’t at all misogynistic,” Feldsher protests, “nor is Barrie’s. But it shows what happens when you’re abandoned, from a dysfunctional family. It throws off your whole socialization and ability to deal with intimacy.”
Feldsher is working against a lot of deeply ingrained images of “Peter Pans” past. “I’m trying to not illustrate everything as in the film and stage versions,” says the recent recipient of the National Endowment of the Arts/Theatre Communications Group Director’s Fellowship (one of only four awarded nationwide in 1993-94). “I’m working toward theatricality. More about shadows, and shadow puppets, the sub-conscious, Plato’s cave, what’s real and what’s not. As adults, Barrie said, we lose our sense of make-believe. I’m looking for a free play of the mind without adult social constraints.” (Haven’t ALL Feldsher’s productions aimed for that??)
The Lost Boys will sport Hawaiian shirts, with mussed-up hair, “like beachcombers left on an island.” Peter won’t wear tights. He’ll be draped in cobwebs, bejeweled with acorns.
Like Caliban? (the brutish half-man from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”).
“Yes, he’s been abandoned, just like Caliban. He’s attractive and young only on the outside.”
And the redoubtable Captain Hook? “Not too menacing or evil. Not too cheesy or schmaltzy, or funny or cute. Nasty-looking but somewhat refined.” (Perfect role for the inimitable Brian Salmon, who, says Feldsher, “can bring the elegance and intelligence, or cut you down with a glance”).
But, the really crucial, burning question is, Will Peter Pan fly?
“This production will be non-literal, more poetic and metaphorical. It’s more about the imagination.” (That means No).
“I’m trying to make this a play about the adolescent mind, adolescent fantasies.” And nobody does it better.
“Peter Pan” runs from November 5-26 (with a possible extension) at Sledgehammer’s St. Cecilia’s Playhouse on Sixth Avenue downtown.
©1995 Patté Productions Inc.