Dri Hernaez, Cereyna Bougouneau, and Harrison Bryan in Peter Pan and Wendy (Don Ipock)
KC Rep produces an exceptionally wide range of theatre but one thing they’ll always deliver on is an innovative, thoughtful presentation of childlike whimsy. Peter Pan and Wendy—a new adaptation by Lauren M. Gunderson, first produced in 2019, based on the classic works from J.M. Barrie—certainly fits this bill. Gunderson puts Barrie’s work through a boldly feminist, anti-colonialist lens, and while the results of these ambitious reframings don’t always land with perfect deftness, this is an intriguing and original approach to a beloved classic.
In this new adaptation, directed by KC Rep’s Artistic Director Stuart Carden, Gunderson takes the bare bones of Barrie’s classic and builds something fresh. The story is essentially the one we all grew up on: The boy who refused to grow up appears at the bedroom window of a girl and her brothers and whisks them off to a magical land filled with pirates, fairies, and mermaids. Here, Wendy Darling (Cereyna Jade Bougouneau) is the same young girl we’ve known for more than a century, about to be thrown into adulthood against her will. But rather than (just) being invested in fairytales and fantasy, this Wendy is a budding scientist. Barrie’s original 1904 play was published only a year after Marie Curie won her Nobel Prize in Physics, and this version makes good use of that history, centering the girl’s admiration for the icon who would have been her contemporary.
Tiger Lily is also placed front and center in this version, giving a one-note, downright racist stereotype some overdue course correction. This Tiger Lily (played by Pawnee actress Paige Elizabeth Brantley) is just as capable as Peter is—more so, really, with a clarity and purpose behind her hatred of Captain Hook and his pirates that Peter could never fathom, making his refusal to take her seriously as his equal all the more frustrating.
This adaptation gives a genuinely exciting feminist and anti-racist turn to a beloved classic. It does, at times, arguably rest on certain tropes rather than deconstruct them (and truly, there is also very little that will undercut and cheapen a “girl power” narrative like having a play’s three female leads turn to the audience and literally exclaim “Girl Power!”) but overall, it is a charming and effectively fresh take on Barrie’s original work.
While all of the characters here are given compelling new spins, what Gunderson does with Peter is exceptional. This is a character we all know extremely well but I’ve never felt so personally invested in him as I did here. Harrison Bryan plays the boy as a laid-back, 1980s Teen Bop Corey Feldman type, complete with the lackadaisical Valley accent. He is a stark contrast to Captain Hook, who is adulthood incarnate, as much the representation of the upper-management, “chief executive” lifestyle Peter so despises as Wendy’s father Mr. Darling, making good use of the traditional dual-casting of those roles. (And John Tufts plays both to perfection.) The dynamic between Pan and Hook is enthralling, raising questions of what it means to have true freedom and to see our deepest fantasies realized—would we appreciate them, would we even recognize them laid out in front of us?
There are fascinating ideas dancing around here about the human condition and how fundamentally, to have dreams and fantasies, we must have mundanity to balance them out. These themes are marvelously evident in the play’s design elements. Gone are the traditional wires and harnesses one would typically associate with this play. Instead, the flying effect is accomplished by more practical (though no less technically impressive) means, from climbing thick ropes to seeing the actors simply lifted into the air by others. Tinkerbell (when not appearing in live form as Kushi Beauchamp’s spritely, energetic mean girl) is represented by a glowing ball, tossed around by an ensemble of puppeteers draped in black, making cartoonish “buzz buzz, zoom zoom” sounds as they throw the ball between themselves—with varying levels of accuracy, although the misses add to the charm. There is magic here but it is all exceedingly, painfully human.
“Peter Pan and Wendy” runs at the Kansas City Repertory Theatre (Spencer Theatre, 4949 Cherry St) through May 21. For more information, visit kcrep.org.