Performers say genre encourages play and fosters infectious fun
The shoulder check isn’t enough. Captain Hook counters, grabs Peter Pan and chucks him halfway across the stage. Peter’s allies gasp, and Hook menaces forward, sword drawn and mouth sneering.
It’s part of the epic finale of director Erin Millar’s new adaptation of J. M. Barrie’s original “Peter Pan” novel — a pantomime produced by Morpheus Theatre.
The pantomime is a popular holiday tradition in Britain, traditionally a Christmas production fostering song, dance, buffoonery and slapstick, geared towards family audiences.
“It’s right up there with Christmas shopping and Christmas dinner,” Millar said. “Pantomimes are fun. They’re cheesy. They’re goofy. It’s got a little bit of draw for everybody.”
In adapting the famous story of Peter Pan from J. M. Barrie’s original stories, Millar said she found it a hoot, though difficult at first. After all, she had to pick and choose moments from the expansive material with only the time of a two-and-a-half hour show.
“Peter Pan is actually a huge story. It’s a novel,” Millar said. “A lot of people tend to think of it in terms of the Disney cartoon. That’s really only one part of a story.”
The process of adapting the story ended up being a fun process for Millar, who said she always loved and admired the story for its imagination, and for its admiration for fun.
Millar said that “Peter is traditionally played by a woman,” so to stay true to this tradition, she chose someone who embodied the qualities of Peter Pan, Heather Berg.
Berg had given up on her acting career before receiving the call back for “Peter Pan.”
“I lost confidence. I was like, ‘I can’t do this, I’m not getting anything,’” Berg said. “I’m not getting into anything, I would sing in front of people and go ‘Eek!’”
The call from Millar, then, was a welcome one — so welcome that Berg ran up and down her stairs and around her yard screaming for joy when she received it.
“I couldn’t wait to actually be Peter. To jump around and act like a little kid,” Berg said. “It’s so much fun. I’m like, ‘I’m 25 and I’m acting like I’m six. It’s awesome!”
Peter Pan’s arch-enemy in the story is, of course, the villainous Captain Hook, played in this production by Ben Blue. He says that the pantomime’s ability to play with the audience makes his role really fun.
“I love scaring children,” Blue said. “Since it’s a pantomime, the whole audience will get to boo at me — that’s fantastic. I’m really looking forward to everyone booing at me.”
Berg and Blue have fight scenes in the production, and much effort was dedicated to making those scenes exciting, with a sense of palpable danger.
Blue is a professionally trained fencer and has been doing staged combat for a number of years, but Berg had to learn the forms and the movement from scratch.
Sometimes you have two people whacking each other with sticks and it looks kind of feeble, Blue said. “I’m thrilled with the stage combat in this play. Heather is a very hard worker and really threw down for this.”
That energy is shared by the rest of the cast due to their freedom to “play,” said Michelle Brandenburg, who plays Star, an original creation of the production.
The pantomime format typically employs a narrator, and so Millar developed the character of Star to directly interact with the audience.
“You never know what the night is going to look like,” Brandenburg said. “The audience is really involved, so you have to be present in every moment.”
Whether booing Hook, answering Star’s questions, or alerting characters to a sneaky Peter Pan, the audience is invited to become part of the story, rather than to just watch the story.
“Play. Energy. Have Fun.” Berg said. “That’s really the point of the show. Neverland is all about having fun.”
Peter Pan runs from Dec. 14 – 18 at the Pumphouse Theatre. For more information, visit morpheustheatre.ca or call 403-246-2999.