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Patrons play along in prequel to 'Peter Pan'

| Saturday, May 17, 2014, 8:36 p.m.

There are no helicopters, crashing chandeliers, gravity-defying divas or theme-park superheroes in “Peter and the Starcatcher.”

And that's what makes it delightful, says playwright Rick Elice, who wrote the script for the national touring production that begins performances May 20 at Heinz Hall as a presentation of the PNC Broadway Across America — Pittsburgh series.

Based on the book “Peter and the Starcatchers” by humorist Dave Barry and suspense writer Ridley Pearson, Elice's script received a Tony nomination for best play after it opened in 2012 on Broadway.

Not a musical, but a play with a musical score, “Peter and the Starcatcher” has an ensemble cast of 12 who play more than 100 roles while using simple props and costumes in this fanciful prequel to J.M. Barrie's tale of “Peter Pan.”

It relies on actors' and audience members' ability to revive their childhood imaginations that could transform a stick into a sword brandished in defense of a fort constructed from sofa pillows.

“It's a celebration of everything I love about theater,” Elice says. “It's based on the venerable story theater technique that depends on the actors' willingness to be a variety of characters and objects to create a world where you are creating theater.”

Pirate ships constructed from popsicle sticks, pipe cleaners and string are pushed across a stage floor sea and a simple length of rope becomes, at different moments, a ladder, the ocean and a hole for someone to tumble into.

“If you want to see a pirate ship or an island … you can create it out of imagining what it looks like,” Elice says. “The audience is willing to enlist in that type of pretend when the actors are good.”

Barry and Pearson originally wrote the book “Peter and the Starcatchers” to answer questions Pearson's 5-year-old daughter raised when he read “Peter Pan” with her.

The book and play answer the questions: Where are Peter's parents? Why doesn't he get older?” How did he learn to fly? What caused the hostility between Peter and Captain Hook?

At the same time, it provides the audience with an amusing, alternate view of the Neverland they grew up with.

“It's a fanciful reboot of ‘Peter Pan,' ” Elice says.

But the plot is not what's most important, he says. “What's special is that it invites the audience to play along. It is very involving, very satisfying.”

Donyale Werle designed sets that would support and encourage that world of invention and make-believe.

“When we become adults, we lose that ability to see something in nothing,” Werle says. “This (play) is going back to a simpler time, which is why adults relate to the story so well.”

The show is very much about making something out of nothing, Werle says: “The projection of (characters') imaginations propels the story. The audience fills in the gaps.”

Werle used that same spirit of invention and imagination when designing the ornate proscenium arch she created to frame the playing area.

While evoking the feel of a Victorian theater, the fruit, flowers, mermaids and other decorations that cover the gilded arch are handcrafted from discarded, repurposed items such as corks, popsicle sticks, bits of Tupperware containers and bottle caps.

Whenever possible, Werle prefers to create her sets with recycled materials.

One set piece was created from doors grabbed from an East Village bodega still smoking after a fire. Backdrops were pieced together from fabric swatches left over from costumes constructed for Disney's Broadway production of “The Little Mermaid.”

As the show tours across the country, Werle has sought opportunities to talk about the creative use of recycled items in set design.

“It's not just about the show,” she says. “It's a larger passion for us.”

Alice T. Carter is the theater critic for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7808 or or via Twitter @ATCarter_Trib

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