Michael John Casey as the pirate Black Stache in Constellation Theatre Company's “Peter and the Starcatcher.” (Daniel Schwartz)
What gutsy little girl wouldn’t love to explore a ship on the high seas? And what audience wouldn’t love to accompany her, if the reconnaissance turned up the surprises that abound in Constellation Theatre Company’s irresistible “Peter and the Starcatcher”?
At one point in this funny, rollicking fantasy-adventure tale, an intrepid young heroine named Molly prowls around a ship, peeking through doors. As she does so, vivid scenes spring to life: seamen playing cards, a chapel service, the punishment of a crew member. Also: a flying cat.
A single plank represents all the doors, and a white muff depicts the cat. To signal each revelation, actors spring into position, through movement and posture conjuring up the door hinges, the sailors’ activities, the cat’s levitation. The fluid pacing and assured physical storytelling are typical of this intimate, playful staging, directed by Kathryn Chase Bryer and featuring a spirited 13-person cast, choreography by Kelly Maxner and Mollye Maxner, and delectable costumes by Kendra Rai.
Written by Rick Elice, with music by Wayne Barker, “Peter and the Starcatcher” is based on Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson’s novel, a prequel to the tale of Peter Pan. (A Broadway production opened in 2012; a touring version landed at the Kennedy Center in 2014.) Filled with irreverent humor, including wordplay and impish anachronisms, the play tells how a nameless orphan — the future Peter — is rescued from shipboard imprisonment by Molly, a turn of events that plunges both youngsters into an escapade involving pirates, mermaids, bloodthirsty islanders, a shipwreck and magic “starstuff.”
Unfurling around and above the wooden platforms of A.J. Guban’s set, the Constellation production benefits hugely from Megan Graves’s funny, endearing turn as Molly. Dallas Tolentino is suitably wary and callow as Peter, and Michael John Casey generally swashbuckles amusingly as the pirate Black Stache. Other notable performances include Alex Vernon as Molly’s redoubtable father, Lord Aster; Ian Anthony Coleman as the mercenary Capt. Slank; and Keith Richards as a blithe, weathered, accordion-playing sailor.
But many of the show’s best moments feature actors meshing together in ensemble sequences, such as a shipboard battle or a line of warbling mermaids. Sometimes the performers animate, or transform into, physical objects, including island boulders and the shards of a shattered mirror. Impressively, the ensemble movement never looks busy or cluttered; it simply conjures up one clear, lively image after another. (The puppetry, which includes a wonderfully menacing crocodile, is designed by Matthew Aldwin McGee, also the props designer. Guban designed the colorful lighting.)
As befits the spunky proto-feminist she is, Molly does some flying of her own. The stage business that effectuates this gravity-defying coup is so simple, yet so bold and dramatic, that Tinker Bell herself might look on with admiration.
Peter and the Starcatcher, a play by Rick Elice, based on the novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson; music by Wayne Barker. Directed by Kathryn Chase Bryer; music direction, Deborah Jacobson. With Jordan Campbell, Kevin M. Collins, Matt Dewberry, Kamau Mitchell, Christopher Michael Richardson, Matthew Schleigh and John Sygar. About 2½ hours. Recommended for ages 10 and up. Tickets: $20-45. Through March 12 at Source, 1835 14th Street NW. Call 202-204-7741 or visit constellationtheatre.org.