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Philadelphia by Tim Dunleavy

Peter Pan
Arden Theatre Company

Peter Pan
David J. Sweeny, Frank X, Bi Jean Ngo
and Sarah Sanford

Actress Bi Jean Ngo was clad completely in black and holding a fishing rod. Attached to the line at the end of the rod was a silvery mass of cloth that looked vaguely like an insect, with long feathery wings attached. Multicolored ribbons hung down from the object, making for a lovely vision as the actress swung her rod through the air. At the other end of the rod, wind chimes clanged together to make music, while the actress communicated by whispering in a language that was hard to comprehend.

Meanwhile, in the row behind me, a little girl who couldn't have been more than four years old had no problem understanding what all of this sound and vision signified.

"I think that's Tinkerbell," she whispered to her mother.

The Arden's Peter Pan is a show that trusts its viewers to fill in the blanks. This is a production that works its magic not through fancy special effects but through the power of suggestion. You'd swear you see Peter and his charges flying through the air, even though no one ever leaves the ground; it's all accomplished with a white sheet, backlighting, and some lively performances.

A lot of the show's success is due to the marvelous steampunk-style design by Tom Gleeson and Richard St. Clair. Sets and costumes are made out of found objects, and the workings of the design are in plain sight. When part of the stage rises, we can see the ropes and pulleys that make it possible ("awesome!" exclaimed a child near me). When music is called for, an actor plucks the strings of a piano's soundboard that just happens to be lying around. Even Peter's Lost Boys are examples of the show's marvelous invention: they're large puppets cleverly constructed from odds and ends. Washboards, watering cans, pots, kettles and hairbrushes—that's what these boys are made of. (No rats or snails or puppy dog tails, though.)

Sound confusing? It's not, thanks to David O'Connor's smooth direction, which makes every action seem natural and logical. The audience is encouraged to use its imagination by Douglas Irvine's script, which frames the tale as a bedtime story told by an adult version of Wendy to her own daughter. When Wendy gets busy, other actors fill in as the narrator, ensuring that audiences of any age can understand what's going on and what all these unusual objects represent.

The actors all do fine jobs. Chris Bresky is nicely cocky as Peter, and Jacqueline Real is sweet and motherly as Wendy. Frank X is imposing as Captain Hook, but the audience sees him transform into the character, so youngsters probably won't get too scared. The other three cast members show real versatility as they leap (sometimes literally) from role to role.

Kids will have no problem imagining themselves into Neverland thanks to the Arden's inventive production. And adults will have a lot of fun watching a group of talented storytellers enjoying themselves immensely.

Peter Pan runs through January 24, 2010, at the Arden Theatre Company, 40 North Second Street. Ticket prices range from $16 to $32 (with group discounts available) and may be purchased by calling the Arden Box Office at 215-922-1122, online at www.ardentheatre.org or in person at the box office.

Peter Pan
Adapted for the stage by Douglas Irvine
From the books by J.M. Barrie
Directed by David O'Connor
Assistant Director/Dramaturg... Sarah Ollove
Scenic Design... Tom Gleeson
Costume Design... Richard St. Clair
Lighting Design... Matt Frey
Sound Design and Composer... Daniel Kluger
Puppet Design... Morgan Fitzpatrick Andrews

Cast:
Peter Pan... Chris Bresky
Hook... Frank X
Wendy... Jacqueline Real
Tiger Lily / Bill Jukes/ Nibs / Jane / Twins / Tinkerbell... Bi Jean Ngo
Starkey / Tootles / Mrs. Darling / Twins... Sarah Sanford
Smee / Slightly / Michael... David Sweeny


Photo: Mark Garvin


-- Tim Dunleavy



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