Friday, May 17, 2024

Peter and the Starcatcher (Empty Space 2024)

The Empty Space has sure been through it the last few years. After 20 years at their old location, the area became unsafe for patrons and cast and crew, so they moved to a new spot, which was promising. 


Unfortunately, they have had to deal with a seemingly never-ending series of permitting issues. The former tenant failed to get permits, the blueprints went missing when the City annexed the former County land, inspectors have required contradictory or impossible changes to the plans, and so on. 


This led to an extended shutdown of the theater, with performances off-site, ridiculous additional expenses, and general headache for all the dedicated people involved. 


Finally, at long last, The Empty Space is back in business, doing what they do. 


I figured I would probably go see Peter and the Starcatcher, but ended up deciding at the last minute to go on a Thursday night. Veteran actor and friend, Claire Rock, who was in the role of Black Stache (the future Captain Hook) was unable to perform, and her understudy, our longtime family friend Selah Gradowitz stepped into the role. This was a big deal for her as a young actor, so my wife and I decided to go cheer her on. 


Peter and the Starcatcher is loosely based on the novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, Peter and the Starcatchers. (Vanilla Ice would approve of the little bitty change of one letter…) The kids and I listened to the audiobook version of the original back in 2016, and then the sequel, Peter and the Shadow Thieves, while traveling to view the eclipse. 


As I noted, the connection between the book and the play is pretty loose. In the play, the character of the nanny is added, the number of lost boys reduced, and significant plot elements modified. Some of this is the need to shorten a book that takes 14 hours on audiobook to fit a 2 hour stage play. But some of it seems weird and unnecessary, and some of what I consider essential explanation gets lost as well. In this sense, I think familiarity with the book both helps fill in the gaps, and raises the issue of why the changes were made. 


But enough of my book pureism. The play is its own art form, and a good crowd pleaser. 


I already mentioned in my review of the book that it is a sort of prequel to the Peter Pan story. I won’t rehash the plot in this post, but feel free to read my previous post, and if you like, the Wikipedia plot summaries of both. 


The play version is riddled with puns and jokes and wordplay, which is fun, but a bit different from the book, which is more of a straight-forward action adventure. I’ll also note my appreciation of the line, “Harder to find than the melody in a John Cage opera…”


The Empty Space has long held a particular niche in local theater. A small intimate space, flexible pricing so everyone can afford to come, low budgets matched with incredible creativity, high artistic values, and usually the use of younger actors who may not be able to break into the same roles at other venues. 


This does mean that some of the cast will have a bit more enthusiasm than polish, but also that it is possible to see actors grow from green teenagers to skilled veterans over time. 


Cast in the role of Molly is Sofie Fruguglietti, last seen in The Secret Garden at Stars. She actually matches the age of the character, but is clearly a rising star, with clear diction, excellent stage presence, and unflappable poise. 


Opposite her is Carter Friedman as the future Peter Pan. He too matches the character age, and did a good job of getting the goofy and naive nature of the character. Because of the nature of the play, the character never really gets to grow into the future like it does in the book. We never really get to see Peter as the fearless leader he becomes. But that is the fault of the script, not the acting. Friedman did well. 

Molly (Sofie Fruguglietti) and Peter (Carter Friedman)


Other highlights to me were Juan Carlos Arellano as Smee, who had to be both comic relief, and sinister enough to be Black Stache’s henchman. Good acting in this case, for sure. 

 Smee (Juan Carlos Arellano) and Black Stache (Clair Rock)

Edgar Moreno did double duty as Slank, the true villain of the story - he swaggered and bellowed and strutted and chewed the scenery like the character should - and also Fighting Prawn, who is a tough one given the original colonialist crap. I felt the book had more space to try to develop this character, which wasn’t really possible in the small space of the play. The use of Italian food words for the “native language” was pretty funny, though. 


And of course, there was our friend Selah, who filled in admirably at the last minute. She also had the difficult task of playing a formidable villain while being the shortest member of the cast. She did play up the laughs - the overly literary pirate who just wants to be the greatest villain ever, and needs a hero for an archenemy. 

 Selah Gradowitz as a pirate (Center)

Kudos to the rest of the cast and crew, of course, including the shadow puppeteers. TES is always doing more with less, doubling roles as needed, scrounging props and sets from wherever they can, maximizing the return on a very limited costume budget, and generally doing the loveable underdog things. 


This isn’t a big budget big city professional theater, but your local kids (I’m old, so I get to call them that…) out making art with what they have. I’ve missed that, and I hope TES can finally see the end of their bureaucratic drama and get back to doing what they do best. 


Peter and the Starcatcher runs this weekend and next, and is a great show to bring the kids to, particularly if they already like the book. 

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