Burning Coal Plumbs the Strange, Partially Formed Humanity of Children in Its Devised Peter Pan & Wendy | Theater | Indy Week

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Burning Coal Plumbs the Strange, Partially Formed Humanity of Children in Its Devised Peter Pan & Wendy

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Does the uncanny valley—that anxious relationship between humans and almost-human simulacra—run through Neverland? I'm asking after seeing Burning Coal's Peter Pan & Wendy, the second notable devised theater work we've seen locally in the last month (after Little Green Pig's Lake Placid). Leading a talented cast of eleven to adapt and perform the famous 1910 novel for the stage, guest director Lillian White probes the darker sides of childhood—the parts that make children, in author J.M. Barrie's words, "gay and innocent and heartless."

On at least one level, children and their parents are caught in a fundamentally one-sided relationship. Each sees in the other things he or she wants to emulate, traits that disgust or horrify, and a record of certain loss: a combination that makes each a distorted mirror for the other. But science has confirmed that something is uncanny in the incomplete neurology of children. While they're still developing a broad range of emotional processes and responses, they can't be said to fully possess them, at least, not in the ways mature people do. Their incomplete capacities for empathy, love, and insight beyond their own immediate wants puts them on the road to being fully human, but not entirely there.

We see more than glimpses of this throughout a mostly deft adaptation. The ruthlessness of Tinker Bell (an animated Holly Holmes) in her dislike for Wendy (a doughty Shawn Morgenlander) could only come as a surprise to those who've never witnessed or can't recall the passions stirred in childhood games of war. More disturbing than the total lack of gratitude displayed by Peter (a strong Alec Silver) is his tendency to forget about people when they stop fulfilling his needs.

Burning Coal's adaptation removes several key characters from the mix. Wendy Darling has only one brother, the inquisitive John, and with the erasure of Neverland's vivid but offensive Indian tribe from Barrie's original text, Tiger Lily has been replaced by a new character, Tsi-La. Kayley Morrison portrays this poignant character, a mother figure who tends to the birds populating the island.

White constructs significant mirrors in the double casting of particular roles. After stage veterans Mark Filiaci and Julie Oliver get at the love between—and the occasional childishness of—Edwardian-era parents the Darlings, they explore those characters' shadow sides.

In Katy Werlin's imaginative costumes, Mom swashbuckles as a dastardly Captain Hook, while Dad becomes Hook's nemesis, a robotic steampunk crocodile intent on devouring her. (Sigmund Freud, please phone in.)

Strong supporting work from Juan Isler as Smee and Ben Apple as both the faithful Nana and the faithless pirate Starkey reinforce the glee and partial development of those small beings who are near to us, but not quite us yet.

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