Adulting is hard. No one knows that better than J.M. Barrie’s devil-may-care Peter Pan, who chooses mythical Neverland over the starched grind of Victorian England. He refuses to adult, as in the verb, not because of his disdain for paying student loans or ironing, but because living in an orphanage doesn’t afford the opportunity to be a child.
“It’s monotonous as an adult: paying bills, mowing the lawn, getting groceries,” says Chanda Calentine, program director at Asheville Community Theatre. Like any seasoned grown-up, she understands Peter’s pining for a simpler world. And though she can’t move to Neverland (rumor has it that rent’s even pricier than in the 828), she can sure transport an audience there, if for only a few hours.
Calentine and other ACT staff will partner with UNC Asheville to stage Peter and the Starcatcher, a Tony Award-winning prequel to Peter Pan. The production opens on Thursday, March 30, at the Carol Belk Theatre on the UNCA campus.
The story follows Molly Aster (played by Chloe Zeitounian) and Peter (Alex Daly). Act I opens with shady characters shifting two identical trunks from ship to ship. One trunk contains starstuff: magical dust that can turn people into anything they want to be. It’s dangerously powerful, so Queen Victoria commissions starcatchers — a “clandestine service of supernatural guardians” — to annihilate any that falls to earth.
An apprentice to her father and lead starcatcher Lord Leonard Aster, Molly must keep nefarious buccaneers at bay while aboard The Neverland. “She’s steadfast in getting to a volcano to destroy the starstuff,” Zeitounian says. “Despite being only 13, she shoulders that responsibility.”
Does Molly arrive at Mount Jalapeño to fulfill the great queen’s wishes? As director, Calentine is keeping that under wraps. She does reveal that pirate ships will be tossed by boiling waves, the Lost Boys will adventure through formidable jungles, and Peter will plunk into a gold pond.
“I had to ask myself, ‘How would I put on a play as a 5-year-old?’” Calentine says. “Well, it requires imagination.”
So, actors sword-fight with toilet plungers and flourish blue parachute material for water. Ropes make ships, and the cast moves together to create Mr. Grin, a hungry crocodile. Plus, the stage is round. Relative to the proscenium style, or the frontward-facing stage that resembles a television screen, audience members sit on all sides. There are no wings for a costume change or quiet breather. Once the actors are onstage, they’re on.
If it’s not Molly’s scene, for example, Zeitounian reverts to a sailor. She’ll take a seat on the stage and play poker or pick her nails. Rather than scooting behind the curtain, she stays in character.
“Each audience member will have a different experience depending on their location,” Zeitounian says. “On the left, you may see pirates threatening British navy men. On the right, you may see the Lost Boys cowering in a basement.”
The whole setup is unconventional, including the host organizations. For more than six decades, ACT and UNCA have nurtured an informal partnership. Students intern at the community theater’s Walnut Street location, and the college does its best to promote community shows, but this co-production is a first.
Robert Bowen, chair of the drama department at UNCA, knows that “out of sight means out of mind” in the theater business. So, when ACT closed for renovation, he suggested it temporarily move performances to Carol Belk.
“Our mission is to support community engagement,” Bowen says. “Plus, the partnership gives our students the chance to work alongside professionals and learn from someone besides a peer.”
UNCA freshman Lea Gilbert says the resulting cast is a motley crew. There are college students under 21 years old and health care professionals over 60. As Captain Robert Falcon Scott, a failing skipper aboard The Wasp who doesn’t know his port from his starboard, Gilbert spends her stage time bound and gagged, thanks to unsavory pirate Bill Slank (played by Mike Yow). More experienced thespians have taught Gilbert to use facial expressions to convey emotion since she’s limited in movement and speech.
Peter Pan enthusiasts will appreciate her wide-eyed response when Black Stache (John Hall), or Captain Hook, enters the scene. Robert Falcon Scott mumbles a refrain like, “God save the queen,” and braces himself for despotism. Yet, as Calentine reveals, Black Stache feels a little soft.
In this production, he likes poetry and is witty. Malice shows in his power-hungry mannerisms, but Black Stache is an otherwise sympathetic character. “It’s like being 40 and looking at your 15-year-old self,” Calentine says. In the end, he’s dealt a nasty hand of cards that makes him bitter: “The hardships of life change him,” says Calentine.
And that’s the underlying theme here: Adulting is hard for fictional and nonfictional characters alike. Similar to Molly, most children ditch jejune tendencies too early. They abandon imagination, Calentine says, and require a laddie in wool stockings to make them believe again — “To awaken them.”
WHAT: Peter and the Starcatcher
WHERE: UNC Asheville’s Carol Belk Theatre, 1 University Heights, ashevilletheatre.org
WHEN: Thursday, March 30, to Saturday, April 15. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 2:30 p.m. $22 adults/$19 seniors and students/$12 for children younger than 17