San Francisco Theater Review: PETER/WENDY (Custom Made Theatre Co.)

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by Chuck Louden on November 21, 2013

in Theater-San Francisco / Bay Area


The story of Peter Pan, about that mischievous little flying boy who doesn’t want to grow up, has been told in numerous forms since J.M. Barrie’s 1904 play and subsequent 1911 novel Peter and Wendy. The adventures of the Lost Boys and the Darling children was musicalized for Broadway in 1954, with Mary Martin repeating her role as Peter on a live telecast which attracted 65 million viewers. Anya Kaz, Kim Saunders, Elissa Beth Stebbins, Sam Bertken, Terry BambergerSince then, revival (Sandy Duncan) after revival (Cathy Rigby) after revival (Cathy Rigby) after revival (Cathy Rigby), the musical has remained a cash cow.

On film, baby boomers no doubt remember Disney’s 1953 animated version and Tinker Bell still reigns as one of the top three merchandise figures at the theme parks (along with the Mouse and Stitch of Lilo & Stitch fame). The Neverland narrative saw a disastrous flop with Spielberg’s Hook, but P. J. Hogan’s 2003 Peter Pan was highly effective. Indeed, the most successful adaptations of Peter Pan (movies or otherwise) found the heart of the story, that bittersweet theme that all children must eventually grow up but that it’s never too late to have a happy childhood. Walt Disney understood this when he said that he was not in the business of making movies for kids; he was in the business of making movies for the child within all of us.

Now, Custom Made Theater Co. in San Francisco is having its West Coast premiere of Peter/Wendy, a short interactive version written and directed by Jeremy Bloom. Billed as a simple stripped-down version of Barrie’s original text from Peter Pan as well as his novel The Little White Bird, the ensemble consists of six women and one Kim Saunders and Terry Bambergerman, all clad in striped pajamas. The actors, all young and full of energy, enter from different angles gesturing, dancing, and reciting lines of dialogue simultaneously in character; they talk to themselves, each other, and the audience as well.  Some of the verbiage, such as the “Happy Thoughts” that are asked for from the audience, is recognized as a part of Peter Pan folklore. Actors begin the classic story with Sam Bertkin introducing himself as Peter. After Wendy (Elissa Stebbins) and Tinker Bell (Anya Kazimierski) are presented, Terry Bamberger, Jessica Rudholm, Kim Saunders and Jeunee Simon play multiple roles, from the elder Darlings to the Lost Boys and Captain Hook. They offer side comments as the story progresses, dancing both literally and figuratively in and out of their different characters.

Jeunee Tawn and Elissa Beth Stebbins in at The Custom Made Theatre Co.Unfortunately, the gimmick is confusing and plays out as experimental theater in which college students are doing a dissertation on the subtext of Peter Pan. The actors flow about the stage with youthful enthusiasm in well-choreographed unison, and occasionally there are moments both tender and wistful, but it feels like the play is going for a profound interpretation without ever getting there. The script offers scant action and character development, which is sorely needed for this adaptation to fly. The dialogue reminded me of the Peanuts comic strip which has children and a dog making social commentary while moaning about their personal anxieties and existential woes.

Jeunee Tawn, Anya Kaz, Sam Bertken, Elissa Beth Stebbins and Jessica RudholmThe small thrust stage at the Gough Street Playhouse is practically set-free, with Joshua Saulpaw’s design consisting of two beds and some chairs. One assumes that the intention was to dismiss elaborate sets of productions past and get to the heart of the matter. While there is certainly a good deal of the optimistic, innocent, childlike energy one would find at a girl’s slumber party, it was hard to sustain interest, even as the show ran only 70 minutes. Mid-way through, I was hoping that the Lost Boys would just find themselves so we could go home.

Jessica Rudholm, Terry Bamberger, Elissa Beth Stebbins, Anya Kaz and Jeunee Tawn

photos by Jay Yamada

The Custom Made Theater Co
Gough Street Playhouse, 1620 Gough Street (at Bush)
ends on December 15, 2013
EXTENDED through December 21, 2013
for tickets, call 415.798.CMTC or visit Custom Made

{ 1 comment }

Kathleen Richardson February 15, 2019 at 2:47 pm

Hello: Thanks for a good review. I agree with you completely.

Just one little oversight on your part: There was a production of Peter Pan, with words and music written by Leonard Bernstein, starring Jean Arthur as Peter and Boris Karloff as Mr. Darling/Captain Hook, on Broadway in 1950. The reason I know this is that I was nine years old when I saw it – and loved it.

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