Review: Peter Pan and the Starcatcher at Walnut Street Theatre

A warm wash of light reveals an elaborate set. A number of four-by-fours erupt from the stage floor to create a second level. Miscellaneous objects — trunks, barrels, rugs, rope — adorn the stage. Simple chandeliers hang over the set. In the center of the stage, there is a lamp with a single light bulb.

Such is the top-of-the-show set for “Peter and the Starcatcher,” Walnut Street Theatre’s current running production. The play is Rick Elice’s adaptation of the first novel in a series by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, and takes place before the events of J. M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan.” The play explains how Peter Pan came to be the boy that never grew up, how Captain Hook lost his right hand, where Tinker Bell originated, and many other aspects of the original story by Barrie. The production is also notable for casting Swarthmore’s own Micaela Shuchman ’16 for the role of Molly, who plays a major part in Peter Pan’s origins.

Smoke begins to cloud the air, and the lights dim. As the show begins, the actors come out on stage and introduce themselves. Impressively, each actor begins and ends the play with the same intense physicality and high energy, rendering the performance an engaging one. This consistent level of energy also highlighted the play’s humorous elements, warranting multiple laughs from the audience.

While the play is comedic, it borrows many elements from Brechtian theatre, which is intended to obscure the audience’s emotional involvement with characters, and instead provoke reflective detachment. In the simplest of terms, this is accomplished not by breaking the fourth wall but acting as if there never was one to begin with. This might mean engaging with the audience, as Smee, played by Aaron Cromie, did when he flirted with an audience member.

It can also mean an assertion that the performance is just that — a performance. This assertion was made multiple times throughout “Peter and the Starcatcher.” At one point in the play, Molly and her nana, Mrs. Bumbrake, are having a conversation in their cabin aboard the ship “Neverland.” The rest of the actors lined up with their backs to the audience to form a wall mid-stage, swaying together and emitting squeaks to emulate the sounds and movements of a ship at sea.

“I believe that as people, we sort of lose the ability to play,” said Shuchman. “So, I really appreciated this play because I think at the heart of it is that question, ‘How do we keep the great parts of being children in our heart even though most of us have to grow up?’”

This central idea of playfulness is incorporated into the design of the show, specifically in the set. At first, it seems like the set features a conglomeration of objects simply to be used throughout the play. This remains true. Nevertheless, it soon becomes obvious through the actors’ engagement with the set pieces and how they are incorporated into the story that it is set in an attic, where children play and imagine stories amongst old furniture and trinkets.

Some choices made in the play — usually either by the director or the playwright — were questionable. First, Shuchman’s role was the only role played by a woman. Even Mrs. Bumbrake is played by a man, which the audience found funny; this in itself was a tacit dehumanization and devalidation of trans women as men in drag. Men dominated this performance.

“This was something I struggled with,” said Shuchman. “At the same time, I guess what I tried to do was make the most of what I had. I had to make my character as strong as possible and put out the message there about Molly and how strong she is as a woman in an environment with only men.

Additionally, the original story of Peter Pan includes an indigenous group living on the island of Neverland — though this is now cut out of most productions of the story. “Peter and the Starcatcher,” as the prequel to that story, also featured an indigenous group called the Mollusks. The Mollusks, garbed in colored leaves, safari hats, and cricket bats looked almost like marooned Englishmen. However, they spoke gibberish and had names like “Fighting Prawn” and “Hawking Clam” — which seemed to refer to the English translations of Native American names in a comedic way. The similarities between the cricket bats and the macuahuitl, a Mayan weapon, also seemed to play into this connection between the Mollusks and indigenous groups.

Tessa Chambers ’19, who is Native and a member of Swarthmore Indigenous Students Association (formerly known as Native American Students Association, or NASA), saw the play with the Philip Evans Scholars Program. She felt so uncomfortable by the portrayal of the indigenous group that she walked out of the show.

“It’s not my job to sit there and peacefully be complicit in racism against my own people,” said Chambers. “Even though it was based on a book, those were casting and directorial decisions … I think that when things are portrayed as forms of entertainment, people think that they can just digest it without being critical … It also has to do with how Native issues are never talked about.”

Shuchman also described the discomfort members of the cast felt about this portrayal of the Mollusks. They had hours-long discussions about it during rehearsals, but ultimately, the director made the final decision about what was depicted and how.

What we decided to justify it as actors was that the entire crux of the play was young children playing around in an attic,” said Shuchman. “So what we tried to portray was how a child would imagine mollusks or shells coming to life, playing with their voices and their language….But I’m not sure that was communicated in the best way at the end of the production.”

Despite these problematic directorial decisions, Shuchman noted that the rehearsal process was in general quite collaborative. Although Shuchman was the rookie thespian of the group, everyone respected her input and made her feel welcome to the world of professional theatre a world she hopes to fully join after she leaves Swarthmore.

“It’s been great to be able to do both of those things,” said Shuchman on being both in school and a professional theatre production. “I’ve been able to get the experience of what the world outside of Swarthmore is going to be like while also still getting to be here and see my friends and do the work I want to do here.”

“Peter and the Starcatcher” is running until May 1st on Walnut Street Theatre’s Mainstage.

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