Photo by Ed KriegerAn achingly beautiful work from the moment you walk into the theater until the moment you walked out soaked in your own tears, Peter and Wendy, Mabou Mines' adaptation of J.M. Barrie's timeless novel and play, is the richest theatrical experience I've enjoyed all year. If your only awareness of Peter Pan is Disney's truncated storyline or Cathy Rigby hanging from invisible wires, you're in for a graceful surprise.
Liza Lorwin's classy, literate script, directed with balletic flair by Lee Breuer, calls for one lone actress (the incandescent Karen Kandel) to narrate and provide the voices of the show's 25 characters, while a sextet of Bunraku-influenced puppeteers (Sam Hack, Preston Foerder, Sarah Provost, Lute Breuer, Jessica Chandlee Smith and Jenny Subjack, an ensemble actually worthy of the term) gives full-blooded life to the wide range of Julie Archer's stunning creations.
At its best moments—and there are many—Mabou Mines' delicate artistry and obvious devotion to the craft of puppetry works like Cirque du Soleil does: it changes the way you look at a medium. As mop-headed Peter flies through the air, a crocodile tangos, Nana the family dog runs around the room or the alienated Captain Hook ponders his lonely existence, you feel such empathy that these puppets stop being puppets and become performers.
But Peter and Wendyworks on more than the level of pure craft. It mines the inherent wisdom of this fairy tale, showing us how time ticks steadily away, refusing to reveal its passing until it's too late and we're at the end of our days. That this production does so with a precision bordering on the surgical, wounding us but then extending its arms to comfort us at the same time, is nothing short of a miracle.
Aided by Johnny Cunningham's live Celtic score and the heart-breaking vocals of Lisa Moscatiello, that bitter medicine goes down pretty easily. This is a rare show worth every penny you'll spend on tickets—and that's a lot if you bring a favored child or another loved one. But the gift you're giving is so full of life and joy (despite the story's often overwhelming sense of loss), it's a memory that loved one will hold dear for years to come. That's a bargain at twice the price.
PETER AND WENDY AT LA JOLLA PLAYHOUSE, 2910 LA JOLLA VILLAGE DR., LA JOLLA, (858) 550-1010. TUES.-SAT., 8 P.M.; SUN., 2 P.M. THROUGH NOV. 10. $39-$49.
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