When the Shaw Festival turns its programming to comedy, more often than not (including this year’s opening night You Never Can Tell—cross-reference below), the humour is largely understated and elicits the odd chuckle and many knowing smiles from the audience.
Once in a blue moon (notably the first incarnation of The President in 2008—cross-reference below), the laughs fall fast and furious, delighting one and all that the more usually serious playbill can sweep away all notions of pretension (assumed or imagined) and, collectively, let everyone’s hair down.
Any thoughts of mission drift aside, Jackie Maxwell’s choice of Peter and the Starcatcher as one of her last productions as artistic director was nothing short of brilliant. The truly ridiculous play by Rick Elice (based on the novel by humourist Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson) is, essentially, a prequel to J.M. Barrie’s beloved Peter Pan, but with decidedly more flights of fancy than bodies floating above the earth.
The most important ingredient to the oh-so-successful result is, hands down, the ensemble: Maxwell must take much pride and not a little of the credit for having nurtured this company during her tenure to the point that everyone on stage—whether in principal or supporting roles—brings with them such an array of talent, skill and sense of each other, that there’s never a feeling of us (“stars”) and them.
To prove that point (let alone remain budget conscious, allowing the showstoppers more leeway to wow the eye), there are no lavish sets or opulent costumes to keep the onlookers’ attention from curtain to curtain. Instead, magically, with minimal sets and props (including a fluttering rag bird appearing on a fishing pole), the designers (Judith Bowden proving less is more for the overall look; Kevin Lamotte readily keeping pace with a lighting plot that deftly captures Laugh In-style cameos and brings Tinker Bell to, well, spot-on first life), the patrons do most of the imagining, spurred on by visual and aural cues that truly make this venture a vrai collaboration on both sides of the proverbial footlights.
Yes, there are real musicians in the wee pit (led with verve by Ryan deSouza; the trumpet interventions being especially welcome), but the songs are as immediately forgettable as the last pun or wordplay (too many to count, to be sure) but do serve a purpose: revealing emerging or established talent as required.
And what revelations there are to behold. Who knew that Jonathan Tan had such strong comedic chops? Playing Smee (forever bringing new meaning to “right-hand man” as the future Captain Hook earns his moniker), the fifth-season regular proves to be an able song-and-dance man (notably his solo siren call), affable cross-dresser (the Act II mermaid can-can puts everyone in a hilarious flap) or mute visage contortionist—in the hallowed tradition of Marty Feldman—by using his eyes to speak volumes about the surrounding mayhem, and, in turn, filling many other eyes with tears of laughter that take no poisoners (er prisoners—see wordplay, above).
Also entering the Comedy Hall of Fame is Martin Happer’s wonderfully lavender take on the Pirate King (Black Stache). (Perhaps the most surprising thing of all in the zany script with its numerous references to lost boys and rogue sailors is any mention of Gilbert and Sullivan’s somewhat similar, Pirates of Penzance—or was that the point of exclusion?)
Billy Lake did yeoman’s service in a covey of parts while Graeme Somerville continued to expand his characterizations as the readily evil Slank and the incredibly boyish Hawking Clam. Equally at home delivering the flatulence, er, gags, or harvesting blood-red bloomers (Jenny L. Wright proved to be a marvellously engaging Mrs. Bumbrake), Shawn Wright’s Alf added much to the guffaw parade.
But when all was said, done and transformed via pixie dust, there wasn’t a soul in the house who didn’t leave without a smile on their face and the hope that the world might be a happier place outside. JWR