There’s something quite special about watching primary cast members of Virginia Stage Company’s new production, the fantastical Peter and the Starcatcher, devour their lunch in front of me.
They have essentially sacrificed their late lunch to sit for a last minute interview with me. I quickly regard their willingness to do so, along with the director’s, as a remarkable tribute to me, but even more so―a sign of just how passionate they all are about bringing as much attention as possible to this family-friendly, big-ass production that kicks off season 37 of the esteemed stage company.
This season represents a number of transitions for VSC, as it’s their last season prior to a significant renovation of the theatre necessitating the move of performances to the nearby Roper Performing Arts Center. Perhaps even more significant, prominent members of the company’s creative team have shifted into new roles. Chris Hanna, who has been the artistic director since before I met him in 2004, is now the director of artistic vision. And as such Patrick Mullins, formerly the associate artistic director, is now the interim artistic director.
It is Patrick who is directing Peter, and he seems―today, like his normal “juggling many balls” self that I know him to be. He says that the transition into the new role has been rather seamless, as he and Chris already worked together and of course, consulted each other about shows of interest, etc. In other words, there is a built up rapport and trust already there. Creatively, they will continue to direct the works that fit their individual artistic aesthetics.
“He’s the realism guy,” Patrick says, sitting across from me in the theatre lobby. “Nobody does Miller and Pinter and those guys any better than Chris.” We totally agree with that. Even Chris’ work as a playwright is largely distinguished by dramas. “And I’ve always been the guy who got the imaginative, fun projects.”
So enter Peter and the Starcatcher. Scripted by Rick Elice, and based on a novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, the play with music explores the origins of the iconic character, Peter Pan, serving as a prequel to J.M. Barrie’s classic work, Peter and Wendy. As a prequel, there are new characters introduced into the Peter Pan myth; including Molly, and her father Lord Aster. The play opened on Broadway in April of 2012 and ran until January 2013. It opened to largely positive reviews and went on to win multiple Tonys. Since that success, there has been a second Off-Broadway mounting, as well as national tours.
In addition to this VSC production of Peter, next month will see the release of Pan, a big-budgeted film that utilizes a completely different origin story, and stars Levi Miller as Peter Pan. Patrick quickly dismisses it as unrelated to anything that VSC is doing, and notes that there are various origin stories about the life of Peter Pan.
I ask him why Peter Pan though, and why now. “It’s all the things I love about theater,” he answers. “The idea of a story that’s a little bigger than us. It has pirates and fantastical elements―kind of like the stories of the Greeks, or the Shakespeare stories.”
“This is a really great myth, so that’s why it holds up to all these different examinations,” Patrick explains, after taking a quick bite of his Subway sandwich. The play, despite its child-like sensibilities, asks some rather big questions about maintaining one’s unjaded innocence, in spite of all of the crap facing all of us as adults, in this current violence and technology-obsessed age that we inhabit. “This is an amazing period to live, but it’s also a really tough period to live in… how do you retain innocence and find magic in this world?”
Concerning the casting, Patrick wanted actors who could bring some new “magic” to their respective roles. He’s particularly giddy about the voices of actor Samuel Encarnacion, who plays Peter, and that of Midori Francis, who inhabits Molly. Both Samuel and Midori are actors of color, which was a positive factor in the decision to cast them, though Patrick is very clear about them being the best actors that he saw for those lead roles. “I also did want to cast in an inclusive manner that reflects our city, and Norfolk,” he says.
“It means to a lot me, to be cast in this role―you know, as a man of color,” acknowledges Samuel, a DMV native. “Traditionally it hasn’t been.” Midori is similarly happy to have the opportunity to portray Molly. “For a role like Molly, whatever I look like, her core is something that I relate to,” explains the VSC newbie. “Passionate, curious, bossy, smart…” Besides Molly’s relationship with Peter, her relationship with her dad, Lord Aster, played by local actor John Robert Heckler, is also engaging to watch.
“He has a daughter and he takes her around the world with him and teaches her how to speak animal languages… he doesn’t really treat her like a child, but allows her to sort of grow, and experience the world her own way,” explains the Norfolk native.
“When you watch these two, they’re both magic―you just can’t stop watching them,” enthuses Patrick, regarding his casting choice. “So when you find the unicorn… you cast the unicorn.” And laughter ensues.
Peter and the Starcatcher by Virginia Stage Company @ The Wells Theatre. Through October 11th. Vastage.com for info and tickets.