Fort Worth — The annual homeward migration of the “far and away” branch of the Simons family is one of Hip Pocket Theatre’s singular summer treats. This year’s offering from New York-based Lake Simons (daughter of HPT founders Johnny and Diane) and her partner, musician-composer John Dyer, is Arcadia Darling, an airy and imaginative pull-together of material from the Peter Pan stories of J.M. Barrie (not just the familiar stage versions), with a touch of the old Greek god Pan thrown in for good measure. It’s a gentle delight, by turns comical and heart-touching—and just the right bit of storytelling for settin’ out on a breezy Texas evening.
Simons’ signature small puppets, creations handheld and manipulated by individual members of the ensemble, are charmingly detailed, and make us want to draw ever-closer to their intimate scale. (In addition to Simons’ distinctive little mob of puppet-people, Coyote Indian spirit puppets for Neverland were created by Rebecca Redfox.) And Barrie’s droll, distinctive writer’s voice finds a wonderful avatar in Dyer himself, who accompanies his own lullaby-soothing, delicately fingered guitar music by narrating the story. The whimsical Scotsman Barrie might never have imagined himself as a broad-shouldered Texas-raised dude—but Dyer’s deadpan delivery is the perfect vehicle for J.M.’s wry, sideways views (and suddenly devastating truths) about parents, children, fairies, and the very personal “Neverlands” inside our heads.
Simons prefaces the play by welcoming us into the rough-planked circle of HPT’s outdoor theater. This year, her toddler daughter rides on one hip and looks around, wide-eyed—and Simons reminds us that “this is how I grew up”—backstage, onstage, front of house, through the decades of her parent’s theatrical life.
There’s always something of the personal and the moment about the Simons/Dyer shows, no matter how timeless the tale. And right now, perhaps because Diane Simons’ memory of those years has faded, Lake Simons the play-maker seems to have moms on her mind.
“One can get on quite well without a mother,” says the Peter Pan of Arcadia Darling—over and over, sounding a bit too tough to believe. Yet the boy who fled his own nursery is always on the lookout for moms—peering through windows, and quite obsessed with Mrs. Darling (serene-faced and floating Shelby Griffin), a pretty lady with “a mocking mouth” and the mother of Wendy, John, and Michael. She is so close to her children that she hovers by them at night, tucking them in with exquisite care, rummaging in the “contents” of their minds and “tidying up” for tomorrow.
Peter, in fact, wants a mother so much he’ll give young Wendy (girlishly dignified Elysia Worcester) a crack at the job—hoping he can talk her into mothering both him and the gang of Lost Boys he’s collected. Just say the word, and they’ll fly away (little brothers in tow) to Peter’s Neverland—“second star on the right, and straight on ‘til morning!”
The ensemble (including the puppets, who feel just as “present” onstage as the humans) is energetic and engaged. Actors move seamlessly to feature roles and back into the “collective” again—handling puppets all along the way. As one example, multi-tasking Quentin McGown’s doubling of roles (as both Mr. Darling and the not-very-dread pirate Hook—an oddly cheerful kidnapper, and philosophic about the crocodile) makes for a lively contrast—but his moments of narration as part of the ensemble are just as strong. Ensemble member Nick Gilley (who plays the Captain’s sidekick) also takes up the narration for a few moments; both he and McGown make the most of their memorable stage voices.
Kristi Ramos Toler is a gruff and affectionate Nana—the Darling’s doggy childcare—and her puppet, shaking with indignation at Peter invading her nursery, is a hoot. Paul Logsdon is a nifty Tootles; Maleka Maudi lends Tiger Lily an air of proud intensity; and John Badar and Allen Dean are boyishly energetic as John and Michael Darling.
There’s a quality about this production that makes one want to unpack some of its boxes (as Mrs. Darling does with her children’s minds) to see how they fit together. A Barrie pronouncement that repeats throughout Arcadia Darling is a puzzle box of its own:
There is almost nothing
that has such a keen sense of fun
as a fallen leaf.
As ensemble members dance in swirling patterns around the circular theater, they carry a rust-colored leaf in each hand, waving them in the air. Pirates swim the backstroke through the atmosphere, never looking at where they’re going. And though the fairies (Caroline Norton is a fierce Tinkerbell) might look rushed and busy, we realize quickly that they move in the same random, curving style as the leaves and pirates, getting little done but enjoying the heck out of it. It’s a chaos theory of the good life—of the random, moment-by-moment way children move through the world, having as much fun as footloose little leaves going where the wind takes them.
And yet, of course, we know life can’t go on that way…not forever. And if the fallen leaf image is nature’s lovely chaos—the universe of Peter and the Neverlands—the children’s parents are all about the control and order needed for a grown-up life, a transition they work at, surprisingly, without resorting to anger or punishment.
In one scene Mr. Darling (McGown is a warm, firmly fatherly presence) finds himself suddenly in charge of not just his own trio but a gaggle of Lost Boys who’ve come to stay. As one by one they float a bit into the air (Neverland habits die hard), Mr. D. tugs each Boy back down to earth, oh so gently, finally managing to form them into a raggedy line and march them away—order temporarily restored. It’s a remarkably sweet and amusing sequence that redeems some of those stories about stern Victorian/Edwardian fathers.
Less clear than the “fallen leaf” theme is the decision to have two actors play Peter (Christina Cranshaw and Jeff Stanfield, more or less joined at the hip). Perhaps the multiple references in the script to the “betwixt and between”-ness of Peter Pan are a clue. Are we being given access to the widest possible spectrum of Peter-ness? Is he both boy and girl child, a spirit not bound by age or gender? Cranshaw and Stanfield give youthful, physical performances that hold our attention, though—and it’s an intriguing concept, if not fully realized.
In somewhat the same way, the show’s shout-out to the Greek god Pan—who lived in a wild paradise called Arcadia, by the way—is a potentially interesting add-on, but needs more development. The only significant references to Pan are in the title and costuming (earth tones and small goaty horns on the two Peters, a reed “Pan pipe” vest on the puppet Peter). Without weaving in more about this god of wild nature and fertility, a good notion flickers out.
But overall, the sights and sounds of Arcadia Darling keep us thoroughly enchanted from start to finish. Dyer’s hypnotic music is both relaxing and insistent, and his narration feels like a bedtime story you’d want to hear again and again. Yet there’s nothing sleepy about the production. Its visuals are simple but captivating—and frequently in motion. Clusters of small stars sweep past in the twilight. A bright red balloon floats by, turning and turning in an actor’s hands. A small yellow crocodile (lit by flashlight) wiggles across the stage, looking for…someone. (And is that a tick-tock we hear?) Designer Nikki DeShea Smith’s moonlight-through-the-trees effect sets the stage floor in motion, wavering and fluid. Small suitcases are carried forward and eagerly unpacked, each one revealing the wonders of its owner’s personal Neverland. A miniscule arrow arcs across an immense span, to pierce the heart of a small Wendy-bird puppet. (Heidi Diederich was this summer’s helpful puppet and props intern.)
There’s so much happening, in fact, that it begins to feel like an exercise in getting the audience to “lean in”—ever closer to the warm heart of the story. We don’t want to miss a thing.
And most of us do know the story—yet Arcadia Darling ends with a particularly “homey” final scene so huggable it might make you long to be little enough (again) to crowd into a grown-up’s loving arms. Barrie’s story is about affection and connection, and Simon’s show (as co-creator Dyer’s program notes make clear) makes a case for the sort of wonderful “found” families/communities that Lost Boys—or theater people—put together along the way.
“Hoopla!” shout the newly found Boys, and wonderful hoopla it is, out there at Hip Pocket. A time to turn off the cell phones—“and forget about them,” says Simon with a knowing look.
A time to let go…and let Peter weave his spell.