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'Peter Pan' production coming to PH high school in October

| Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
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The Pittsburgh International Children's Theater and TheatreWorks USA will stage a unique adaptation of 'Peter Pan' at Penn Hills High School in October.
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The Pittsburgh International Children's Theater and TheatreWorks USA will stage a unique adaptation of 'Peter Pan' at Penn Hills High School in October. Above, the TheatreWorks USA cast, comprised of professional New York City actors.

The “play-within-a-play” concept generally is a bit highfalutin for a children's theater production.

Then again, what if it's children who are performing the in-play play?

That's the idea behind TheatreWorksUSA's touring production of “Peter Pan,” an adaptation of the classic J.M. Barrie children's story.

The play, presented by Pittsburgh International Children's Theater, a division of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, will come to Penn Hills High School on Oct. 23 at 7 p.m.

Barbara Pasternack, artistic director at New York City-based TheatreWorks-USA, said her group edited the traditional “Peter Pan” stage play and reworked it to spark children's imaginations.

“When you read ‘Peter Pan,' you think, ‘Oh, there's flying, and there's all this magic that happens,' ” Pasternack said. “ ‘How are they going to do that with a small cast and no flying?'

“That's where TheatreWorks really excels, and our productions are sort of magical because of those restrictions.”

Because the company will take the play to six venues over eight days, a minimalist production is a necessity. Pasternack said TheatreWorks is able to turn the concept on its head, though.

“You get a lot more interesting production,” she said. “Our director came up with the idea that these children were in their nursery, re-telling and re-enacting the story of Peter Pan. And the idea of storytelling is woven through the entire Peter Pan story.”

The concept gives the cast a great deal of artistic license.

“The elements in the nursery are used to tell the story. It has a period, Edwardian feel to it, so for instance, if a child back then was playing Captain Hook, what would they use? We have an old-fashioned Victrola horn that becomes the pipe and the hook. Pillows become clouds… the ironing board becomes the pirate-ship plank.”

Pamela Lieberman, programming and executive director for Pittsburgh International Children's Theater, said she's fascinated by how theater “creates a lot out of simple sets and techniques.

“I think this particular show is interesting because it's set in a time before cellphones and video games,” she said. “It helps illustrate how you can be really creative without electronics. A lot of that simple play, which is very fulfilling for a child, is missing in the modern world.”

The play actually is a revival of a 2000 TheatreWorks production. Pasternack said one of the reasons for the revival is the feedback she got from parents about the very fulfillment Lieberman touched on.

“We got a letter after we first did the show, from a mother: her two kids were boys, 7 and 9 year old,” Pasternack said. “Past the age of playing make-believe. And after seeing the play, she went into their bedroom one day and saw them acting it out, and she said she cried.”

The letter goes to the heart of TheatreWorks' mission, Pasternack said.

“I think that's the exact intent,” she said. “Seeing a production like this, where it looks as though you could do it yourself, can inspire that kind of acting-out, and that's what theater should be about: igniting the imagination.”

Patrick Varine is an editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7845 or pvarine@tribweb.com.

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