Are all pirates inherently hard of hearing? It would seem so, at least based on Playhouse on Park’s current production of “Peter and the Star Catcher,” which is under the direction of Sean Harris. In fact, at least based on the somewhat incomprehensible first act, most of the cast seem to be in need of hearing aids. That’s because, quite often, lines are delivered as if cast members are in different rooms, and even when the decibel level is lowered, the actors sound like they have been asked to chew on nouns and gnaw on verbs. This is especially irksome since the plot, as laid out in the first act, is somewhat (unnecessarily) convoluted. Thus, if you can’t understand what the actors are saying you are essentially adrift on a rough sea.
Based on a novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, “Peter” is basically a prequel to J. M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan.” As scripted by Rick Elice, with music by Wayne Barker, what might have worked in the novel, since a reader has the opportunity to pause and ponder, becomes somewhat opaque as a play, especially given the aforementioned dialogue problems.
As best as I could make out, it’s the late nineteenth century and Lord Aster (James Patrick Nelson) has been charged with delivering a gift from Queen Victoria to some foreign leader whose name and provenance I missed. With him is his daughter, Molly (Natalie Sanners), an apprentice star-catcher. What’s a star-catcher? Well, it has something to do, obviously, with stars, or shooting stars, but what, exactly, remains to be seen. There are two ships waiting to sail – the Wasp and the Neverland – and two crates, one of which carries the gift for the foreign potentate – it’s starstuff. What does the other contain? I believe it’s sand. Why the two crates? Beats me. In any event, for reasons lost in the garbled dialogue, Lord Aster demands that Molly sail on the Neverland while he sets forth on the Wasp. Oh, yes, the two crates are switched. Why? Again, beats me.
Things quickly become more confusing, for it turns out that the crew of the Neverland harbors pirates, including their leader, Black Stache (Matthew Quinn) and his henchman, Smee (Miss Sandra Mhlongo). We now, at least for one audience member, enter terra incognita involving three orphan boys on the Neverland to be sent to the potentate as dinner entrees (one of the boys [Jared Starkey] will eventually be dubbed Peter and, then, in the second act, be given the surname Pan). There’s a chase at sea, a violent storm that casts all crew members of both ships into the drink, along with the crate that has been sailing with Molly (yes, the starstuff). They all end up on the island of Mollusk. Thus, thankfully, ends the first act.
Perhaps their time in the briny ocean has affected the cast members’ vocal chords, for there is little yelling in the second act and the dialogue, by and large, becomes understandable. The second act also brings us to more familiar territory, for it suggests the origin of the Peter Pan legend, the eternal conflict between Pan and Captain Hook, and the source of the Lost Boys.
It’s also in the second act that many of the characters emerge from the first act’s foggy plot and munch-crunched dialogue, chief among them Black Stache. Quinn has been licensed by director Harris to play Stache as broadly as possible, and Quinn makes the most of it, preening and posing and reveling in his character’s many malapropisms, corrected by Smee. It turns out that the starstuff has magic qualities. Peter gets to shore atop the crate that contains the starstuff, but it leaks out, working wonders, especially to some sea creatures – fish of various varieties – that are all turned into mermaids, leading to the second act’s rather entertaining opening number, “Mermaid Outta Me.” It is here that we are also introduced to the island’s potentate, Fighting Prawn (Elena V. Levenson) who, for no special reason, speaks with an Italian accent. Levenson vies with Quinn to see who can best stay just this side of an over-the-top performance – if nothing else, it’s fun to watch them milk their respective roles for all they are worth.
Sannes, as Molly, is an engaging young actress, but her character is ill-defined by the playwright, especially as it pertains to the exact function of a star-catcher and why she has been required to sail on the Neverland (it all may be there in the first act and I just missed it). Thus, although she is in many scenes, and develops a relationship, of sorts, with Peter, we never truly understand what is at stake for this main character – yes, she’s a plucky young lass but…so what? However, it’s nice to know that she will eventually return to England, marry and give birth to…you guessed it, Wendy.
“Peter and the Star Catcher” could have been an enjoyable trip down Memory Lane, a satisfying explication of how Peter Pan and Captain Hook came to be, much as the 2009 “Star Trek” film revealed how Kirk, Spock, McCoy and Scotty first came to be associated with each other. Alas, although the second act does offer some “Aha!” moments, the first act attempts to do too much that is, quite simply, not relevant, and although the starstuff may eventually explain Peter’s ability to fly, it remains a mysterious substance.
I saw the show on opening night, so maybe Harris, who was in attendance, will consider reining in his cast a bit, lowering the “Aarrggh” level of the dialogue and allowing the audience to grasp what the hell is going on in the first act. Maybe not. As I slipped back to my seat before the start of the second act I took a very random sampling of audience members, simply asking them if they had understood much of the dialogue in the first act. Most had not. One lady of a certain age said to me: “I don’t know what’s going on but I’m staying because my ride’s not available until after ten o’clock.” Not exactly a rave review.
“Peter and the Starcatcher” runs through Oct. 14. For tickets or more information call 860-523-5900, X10, or go to www.playhouseonpark.org