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wendy and peter pan

Wendy And Peter Pan At The Stratford Festival

“Female-forward” is one of the sillier neologisms of our new theatrical dispensation, but it is an apt descriptor for Wendy and Peter Pan, now being presented at Stratford’s Avon Theatre as part of the ongoing series of Schulich Children’s Plays.

As the title suggests, English playwright (the show premiered at the Royal Shakespeare Company) Ella Hickson has rejiggered the plot of J. M. Barrie’s classic story of the boy who wouldn’t grow up to “center” Wendy and give her plenty of “agency” and, indeed, make her the hero (heroine? hero-person?) of the piece.

Not only that but the cast of Wendy and Peter Pan is a veritable smorgasbord of gender euphoria. Captain Hook and sidekick Smee are both played by women as are the odd pirate and several of the lost boys while Tink, the fairy formerly known as Tinkerbell, is a drag queen. I found it interesting, given all the manifold faults ascribed to boys and men by Hickson that director Thomas Morgan Jones chose to cast Peter with a trans actor.

Wendy and Peter Pan is resolutely feminist in its messaging and very clearly aimed at the very young, although there is plenty of grist for the adults who shepherd them to the theatre to chew on. She clearly wants to prepare – Ron DeSantis might say “groom” – the kids for a post-patriarchal future.

So how does that work out? Remarkably well as it turns out. Snarky comments aside, Wendy and Peter Pan proves to be a sturdy, if perhaps overlong, piece of children’s theatre. There is plenty of razzle-dazzle and swashbuckling battles to distract the kids from any uncomfortable realization that they are being indoctrinated.

One of Hickson’s more interesting twists is giving Wendy a third brother, Tom, who dies in the first scene, reflecting a trend in today’s kid-lit that exposes even small children to some of life’s harsher realities. Her anguished hope to see her brother again provides added impetus to her journey to Neverland and carries through to a suitably sentimental moment at play’s end.

Director Jones keeps the proceedings moving along briskly, leaning heavily into the pantomime aspects of the story with kids prompted to boo the villains and cheer the heroes. He has able assistance from set and costume designer Robin Fisher, lighting designer Arun Srinivasan, and choreographer Jera Wolfe.

Since Wendy and Peter Pan is, after all, no matter how feminized, a tale of Peter Pan there is plenty of flying, which along with other onstage automation is handled adroitly by Andrea Gentry and Johnathon Tackett of ZFX.

A word of praise, too, for fight director Anita Nittoly. I tend to be dismissive of contemporary fight choreography that seems to prioritize safety over verisimilitude. I am old enough to remember undergraduate Shakespeare productions with battle scenes that regularly drew blood. But I realize that today’s performers live in more enlightened times.

The many fight scenes in Wendy and Peter Pan work very well indeed given the all-importance of safety, never more so than in one inspired sequence in which the action is rendered in simulated slo-mo. Well done!

Jones has assembled a first-rate 20-strong cast for Wendy and Peter Pan. Cynthia Jimenez-Hicks makes a splendid Stratford debut as Wendy, navigating the sometimes confusing twists and turns of her growing self-awareness with aplomb.

Jake Runeckles is quite unlike any other Peter Pan I have ever seen. Her Peter is a long-haired, hyperactive, androgynous sprite with silver beads hanging from her nose, constantly in motion, constantly striking poses (presumably the work of choreographer Wolfe) that put me in mind of Ravi Jain’s Mahabharata. It’s an arresting interpretation and Runeckles pulls it off well.

The always reliable Laura Condlln makes a solid Hook, playing it absolutely straight, never condescending to mugging. As her fawning sidekick, an almost unrecognizable Sara-Jeanne Hosie provides nice comic relief.

Nestor Lozano, Jr., who so impressed as the tragic transvestite in last season’s Rent, makes an impressive Tink and James Daly is a delight as the wimpy and asthmatic pirate who is sure he should probably be one of the lost boys.

At the end of Wendy and Peter Pan, the pompous ass, Mr. Darling, the poster child for the cis-hetero patriarchy, played expertly by Sean Arbuckle, is offered a shot of redemption. Chastened by his wife’s assertion of her own independence, he promises to be a better husband. He will even learn how to do that “clothes-flattening thing.”

It’s as hokey and obvious as any Hallmark Christmas special but it works. In the end, for all her efforts (largely successful) to be “transgressive,” Hickson reveals herself to be every bit as sentimental and heart-tugging as any musty “classic” dreamed up by a dead white male. Be prepared to have a lump in your throat.

Wendy and Peter Pan continues at the Avon Theatre through October 27, 2024. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit the Stratford Festival website.

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