We saw a new staging of Peter Pan last night. It was an intense experience on many levels. I will write more about the show in a sec, since being a theater critic was my #2 career aspiration in college (#1 being a correspondent role on The Daily Show, but alas not all dreams come true). First, I feel like I should write out some of the profound adoption themes that the show brought up for me.
’ve never thought of Peter Pan as a story about adoption. I’ve never thought much about it at all, really. It was one of my least favorite Disney movies as a child, in part because I think it deals with some really existential themes that sort of made my head explode as a child. Mark loved the story as a kid. To him, it was a fantastical story about the possibility of flying and the dream of being a kid forever. To my neurotic little brain, it just opened up to many questions. Why isn’t he growing up? Is the maturation process affecting his body AND his mind? Is he gaining maturity through experience or is it stunted at the same rate as his body? and WHY? WHY WON’T HE GROW UP AND WHAT WILL HAPPEN TO HIM AS HE AGES AND WHY OH WHY IS THIS HAPPENING?
(For full disclosure, I’ve never been one for fantasy. As a child, I also hated any movies about talking animals. I found cartoon situations where characters were killed and then revived (via steamroller, anvil, etc) to be VERY TROUBLING,. And I’m not even gonna get into my feelings about the whole Freaky Friday body-swapping scenario.)
(Also, I’ve always hated the cheesy musical version of Peter Pan, in which a middle-aged woman with a waif haircut sings showtunes while being hoisted by a string above the audience. NO THANK YOU).
This production of Peter Pan was a decidedly more adult version than the Disney cartoon, so I think it I finally caught that this story is scratching as some serious existential issues, beyond those of swashbuckling pirates and believing in fairies. And in addition to the obvious exploration of growing up, there was also a heavy exploration of the state of being motherless.
I really couldn’t help drawing parallels between Kembe’s ambivalence towards having a family, and the orphan experience of the Lost Boys. In so many ways, I saw Kembe and his friends in the Lost Boys . . . .not because they were “lost”, per se, but because they were a group of boys without parents, having a blast together but also missing out on some of the developmental experiences of being parented. Watching the Lost Boys as they pushed and pulled with their desire for a mother vs. their disdain for discipline and adults in general was very familiar. It was almost painful hearing Wendy try to convince the boys why they needed a mother, and why an existence of unattached revelry could not be superior to missing out on a family. It’s a hard sell to a child. This is exactly where we are at with Kembe today. He’s just not quite sure that this family thing is worth it. He longs for connection, but he also resents the accountability that intimacy brings.
In the play, all of this is solved in the act of adoption. Much like the “happily ever after” portrayal of fairy-tale marriage, the Lost Boys are fulfilled . . . redeemed . . . and they grow into men with “boring jobs and full lives”. If only in real life it were that easy. I know that Kembe misses his motherless existence – his band of brothers who delighted in seeing what they could get away with, and fighting over who would be top dog each day. I also know that a family is better than his Lord of the Flies environment, even though he is feeling the loss. Even in the story, we see what becomes of children who never attach and form empathy for others: this theme is played out in the pirates, who are self-serving and miserable and yet still long for a mother to care for them.
But convincing a three-year-old of that is not so easy
(I think the picture above might actually be his Freudian fanstasy right now . . . me wounded, with him free to rule a small army of other children willing to do his bidding. But I digress).
At the end of the play, we are left with a forlorn Peter Pan, who seems wistful of the life he has missed. But then we see him spirit away Wendy’s daughter, and we are left feeling wistful ourselves, for that magical lost childhood. My hope is that for Kembe, they will not be mutually exclusive. Nevertheless, it left me thinking about how hard it is for Kembe to surrender to the security of family after the life he had in the boy’s home. Because, it was not a bad life. It just wasn’t a life that was going to prepare him to be a secure and attached adult.
Anyways, enough of me blathering about the existential issues . . . how was the show? It was good. It was really good. Perhaps a bit heavy for a three-year-old and a five-year-old, though they seemed engaged the whole time. There was some cursing and killing that was a little inappropriate, though my kids completely ignored the words ass and damn and then loudly proclaimed that a bad word was used (!!!) every time someone said the word stupid. I’m sure the people in front of us appreciated having the language police sitting behind them.
The set was amazing and really, the highlight of the show. It was like seeing a play under an Imax theater. When the characters flew, the scenery changed and it really felt like the were flying over London. The actors were good (though perhaps a little heavy-handed . . . at times it felt a little “Shakespeare in the Park”. The set was minimalist, which kept the focus on the screens above. The flying was pretty phenomenal and I loved the mermaids doing trapeze work from hanging fabric. It was like Cirque du Soleil meets Imax. All in all, I would give it four out of five stars, and recommend it for kids age 8 and up.
See? I should totally be a theater critic when I grow up.
**If you are thinking of taking kids, hop over to the OC Register website where Amy Stevens highlights some of our recommendations.