Review: ‘Peter/Wendy’ at Custom Made Theatre Company (****)

(Charles Kruger)

(Rating: ****)

This reviewer is a voting associate member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)
This reviewer is a voting associate member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

(“Peter/Wendy” plays at The Gough Street Playhouse from November 19 through December 15, 2013).

James Barrie‘s masterpiece, “Peter Pan”, like all of the greatest fairy tales, is a story for children about matters deep and frightening: the loss of one’s parents, the powerful presence of evil enemies, personal mortality. It is the genius of Barrie to engage these frightening themes while simultaneously tickling fancies with humor and delight. The appeal of this quite disturbing story, like Peter Pan himself, is a mystery about which nothing is light weight. Barrie takes the darkest of themes, the true stuff of nightmare, and makes them fly and twinkle in the night.

The perfection of Barrie’s handling of this complex content assures that even in its most child friendly manifestations these deeper themes are not lost (think Disney on film and Cathy Rigby on Broadway). It is always a special treat however, when Peter Pan is presented in a version for adults, as it is in Jeremy Bloom‘s marvelously subtle adaptation.

Sam Bertken is delightful as a petulant Peter Pan in Custommade's Production of Peter/Wendy. Photo Credit: Jay Yamata.
Sam Bertken is delightful as a petulant Peter Pan in Custommade’s Production of Peter/Wendy. Photo Credit: Jay Yamata.

Under director Bloom’s guiding hand, scenic designer Joshua Saulpaw has stripped the Gough Street Playhouse (a converted chapel in the landmark Trinity Episcopal Church) to its skeleton, exposing every wall. The stage is bare and grey, like a concrete playground. It would be a grim, coffin-like box to enter, were it not for the enthusiastic ensemble of seven outstanding actors dancing about like kids on a playing field which they are decorating in chalk with “happy thoughts” collected from the audience. Indeed, every bit of the exposed walls has been decorated with these thoughts which range from the obvious (Christmas) to the unexpected (big boobies) to the touching (a deceased child). The mood is further enhanced by the wonderful selection of music by (the much lamented) The Books, one of the greatest, most thought provoking experimental bands of the present century, who broke up last year.

The actors, dressed in pajama-like children’s play clothes  begin chanting passages from Barrie’s novels, with overlapping voices, gradually organizing themselves into a rhythmic ensemble simultaneously charming and a bit frightening.

In the next 80 minutes (without intermission), they act out the story of Wendy and Peter, with all the familiar elements, in a new and startling interpretation. Missing are the traditional pantomime set, the charming costumes, the actors in dog and crocodile costumes, the wires lifting the actors into the air. Here, Peter and Wendy simply twirl in place and announce they are flying, and, like children seduced by a game, we believe. It is lovely, lovely.

Director Jeremy Bloom notes that although ‘Peter/Wendy’ has been presented multiple times in multiple cities, this production has been developed anew as a collaborative piece with these particular actors in this particular space. It is as fresh and familiar as a sunrise.

On leaving the theatre, one is astounded by a satisfied mixture of feelings which include both happy thoughts and the deepest of sorrows, a helping of life at once rich and poisonous, like Hook’s cake, offered in the twilight between childhood and adulthood, life and death, joy and sadness, like a faerie who is nothing more than a single darting point of light in the darkness.

It’s rather well done.

For further information, click here.


“Peter and Wendy” adapted and directed by Jeremy Bloom from J. M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan and Wendy” and “The Little White Bird”, presented by Custom Made Theatre Company.  Scenic Design: Joshua Saulpaw. Lighting Design: Colin Johnson. Sound Design: Liz Rider. Scenic Artist: Nicola McCarthy. Musical Score: The Books.

Mr. Darling/Hook: Terry Bamberger. Peter: Sam Bertken. Tinkerbell: Anya Kazimierski. Kim Saunders: Mrs. Darling/Smee. Jeunee Simon: A Lost Boy/Mermaid. Elissa Beth Stebbins: Wendy.


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