More Pixels Than Pixie Dust in this Peter Pan Techno-Spectacle

Imagination gets a leg up in the new production of Peter Pan. One hundred computers assist 12 projectors beaming 10,000-pixel-wide images to bring us a computer-generated Neverland splayed across the world's first 360 degree CGI theater set. Peter, Wendy, Tink and the others soar against this HD backdrop nearly 100 feet up, in the US premiere of this highest of high-tech adaptations of J.M. Barrie's 1904 play.

But is it theater? Or is it more akin to PETER PAN! -- The Disneyland Ride? This London import's immensely immersive, flight-simulating virtual experience feels a bit like a theme park ride or a video game.

This genre, what I might call, "Planetarium Theater," might herald the future of theater (like 3D CGI is rendering hand-drawn animation quaint and rare). Or it might be a short-lived gimmick -- anyone remember the movie Earthquake... in Sensurround? (That seat-shaking trick was actually preceded by an earlier sensory garnish, Percepto!, developed by legendary 1950's showman William Castle to deliver electric jolts to theatergoers during the climax of his 1959 film The Tingler. John Waters spoofed the practice in 1981, releasing Polyester in scratch-and-sniff Odorama.

I'm not saying threesixty° entertainment's Peter Pan is the Odorama of live theater. I'm just saying maybe I hear William Shakespeare weeping somewhere beneath Stratford-on-Avon. Because here, the play's not the thing. It is, however, the launch pad for techno-awesomeness.

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When Peter fetches Wendy, Michael and John and they fly out their townhouse window and over London's landmarks -- Buckingham Palace, Tower Bridge -- and dive through the Marble Arch -- it is super cool. Without a doubt. And we really become part of the experience of flying, with the screens surrounding us and taking us up, up, and away.

The scenes of flight -- or deep-sea submersion with live mermaids, virtual fish and underwater views of the pirate ship are stunning moments when the live action and the computer-generated scenery seem to interact. At other times, the "theater" part of the play drags. The action and the dialogue are uninspiring and devoid of intrinsic magic. The play is upstaged by the backdrop.

Director Ben Harrison's aesthetic production has a bit of a Cirque du Soleil thing going on: graceful flying, mid-air somersaulting and an interpretive indigenous person's yoga-as-"thank you" dance (Heidi Bluehler as Tiger Lily). The whole shebang features some 22 actors, with Nate Fallows as a classic, not especially absorbing Peter Pan. Jonathan Hyde is a zesty Captain Hook. And Abby Ford's Wendy ultimately demonstrates touching emotional depth. But by and large the acting -- and most especially the script, a pedestrian adaptation by Tanya Ronder -- is unremarkable.

Sue Buckmaster's cool puppetry design helps along the live action whimsicality. On stage, puppeteers manipulate a big floppy sheep dog and a few birds with great attention to the animals' movements. Their innovative, low-tech construction and execution is a nice contrast to the techno-pizzazz and it owes much to Julie Taymor's use of puppets in The Lion King. Especially the ingeniously-designed crocodile. Two men pedal this skate-cycle contraption within the huge framework of a crocodile. Like Hyde's humorous bad-guy pirate and his hapless subordinates, the Croc is just scary enough to little kids to be fun-frightening.

And I'm glad the children can still be jolted by such an impressionistic and sculptural crocodile.

Peter Pan runs through August 29, 2010 at The threesixty° theater at Justin Herman Plaza, located at the intersection of Clay Street and Drumm Street, across the street from the Ferry Building on the Embarcadero in San Francisco.

For tickets and information, call 1-888-PPANTIX (1-888-772-6849), or visit peterpantheshow.com.

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