Enchanting Starcatcher has all the right star stuff

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The company of Peter and the Starcatcher opens Act 2 with a rousing number involving Neverland mermaids. The Tony Award-winning play continues through Dec. 1 at the Curran Theatre as part of the SHN season. Below: Peter (Joey deBettencourt) takes a leap of faith into a golden lagoon. Photos by Jenny Anderson

Is it the fantasy of flying? The lure of perpetual youth? The constant yearning for home? Whatever the reason, the interest in the Peter Pan story seems, if anything, even more persistent than when J.M. Barrie introduced it in the early 1900s both in book form and as a play. His story of the flying boy who will never mature beyond the cusp of manhood touched some kind of universal nerve that has resonated through a century’s worth of adaptations, reinterpretations and flights of fancy.

The most recent big-ticket re-telling comes from playwright Rick Elice, half of the team (with Marshall Brickman behind the musical juggernaut known as Jersey Boys), who has adapted the Peter Pan prequel Peter and the Starcatchers by Dave Berry and Ridley Pearson for the stage.

Working with directors Roger Rees and Alex Timbers, Elice conceives the tale as a piece of stripped-down theatrical storytelling short on the kind of manufactured spectacle and special effects we’ve come to expect from Tony Award-winning Broadway shows (this one has five such statues) and long on crackling good humor, rough-edged intelligence and heart.

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The touring production of Peter and the Starcatcher now at the Curran Theatre as part of the SHN season, is as delightful as the version I saw on Broadway. Because this is serious storytelling, with the company of actors playing many roles with very few costume alterations, it takes a minute to shake off the constraints of the usual theatergoing, you know, where the show itself does all the work and you just sit there. Peter demands a little something of its audience and offers rewards for participation.

The marvelous designers Donyale Werle (sets) and Paloma Young, with assists from Jeff Croiter’s lights and Darron L. West’s sound, give us just what we need to tease our imaginations into believing we’re seeing a “period” piece with one foot in 1880s London and the high seas and the other grounded in a modern sensibility. I’ve heard the description “steam punk” for the design (especially the costumes), and I get the punk part, just not the steam. They’re great, raggedy costumes that suggest more than outright describe. For instance, a distinguished government man in his great coat has medals on his chest, but if you really look, they’re actually keys dangling there.

That sense of re-use infuses the production with a playful, resourceful sense of childhood: serious play with drama, outcomes and reality mixed into the fantasy and imagination. You see it in the Victorian proscenium decorated with garden implements and kitchenware. You see it in the mermaids that open Act 2, with their tails made of fans and bras made of teapots and vegetable steamers. And you see it in an extraordinary piece of rope that becomes a door, a ship’s deck and many other things over the course of the play.

The 12-member company tells the story and acts the story, which takes a little getting used to, but once the rhythms are established, the story takes off, especially in Act 2, which offers one thrill after another (especially if you know your Pan lore and care about why the crocodile ticks, how Capt. Hook lost his hand, why Peter can fly and where the heck Tinkerbell came from).

There’s one clever delight after another as we see two ships headed for the island country of Rundoon. One carries a treasure belonging to Queen Victoria (God save her), and the other has been overtaken by pirates. Also tucked into one of the ships are a valiant daughter, Molly (Megan Stern), trying to help her noble father (Ian Michael Stuart) and ditch her governess, Mrs. Bumbrake (Benjamin Schrader). Once Molly does shake the old battle axe, she discovers three wayward orphans who are being sent to the King of Rundoon, who will feed them to his snakes. They are Prentiss (Carl Howell), the ineffective leader, Ted (Edward Tournier), the pork-obsessed dreamer, and the nameless, grown-up-hating boy (Joey deBettencourt who will be Peter.

Leading the charge of the pirate brigade is Black Stache (John Sanders), a word-mangling bumbler with a hint of menace. His moustache is about 90 percent Groucho, and so is Sanders’ goofily over-the-top performance.

The entire company seems to be having a ball, and their enthusiasm and commitment to the storytelling is the only special effects necessary to take us to Neverland and back.

[bonus interview]
I interviewed Peter and the Starcatcher’s Tony Award-winning costume and set designers, Paloma Young and Donyale Werle for the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

Peter and the Starcatcher continues through Dec. 1 at the Curran Theatre, 445 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $40-$160 (subject to change). Call 888-746-1799 or visit www.shnsf.com.

Review: `What You Will’

Opened July 21 at American Conservatory Theater

Roger Rees performs a soliloquy from Richard II, one of many incredible moments in What You Will, a solo show about all things Shakespeare at American Conservatory Theater. Photos by David Allen


Laughs, brains, heart infuse Rees’ evening of Shakespeare

Sometimes one actor is plenty.

Roger Rees may be alone for the duration of What You Will, but he brings with him 400 years’ worth of English history and literary criticism as well as some of Shakespeare’s most beautiful verse.

One of those great British-born actors who makes it all seem so effortless, Rees is best known on these shores for his TV stints (“Cheers,” “The West Wing,” “Grey’s Anatomy”), but in reality, he’s a Tony-winning former member of the Royal Shakespeare Company who knows a thing or two thousand about Shakespeare.

Rees’ abundant knowledge and humor are the focal point of What You Will, a 90-minute showcase now at American Conservatory Theater. He tells stories about Shakespeare, about what people think about Shakespeare, from George Bernard Shaw and Voltaire to kids in online chat rooms. He relates backstage tales, many of them bawdy, and makes fun of himself as a young spear-carrying actor.

And then he performs excerpts from Shakespeare. He sneaks Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” soliloquy on us at an amazing moment, and his most robust turn comes when he plays Juliet’s nurse from Romeo and Juliet. Rather than donning drag, Rees just puts on a backwards A’s cap and lets loose.

He seeks a “muse of fire” in the opening of Henry V and illuminates Hamlet’s decision to put on a play in “O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!” He compares a lover to a summer’s day in “Sonnet 18” and entices us to put down the books and pick up the women in Berowne’s speech from Love’s Labour’s Lost. He puts a wig on a bust of Shakespeare and pretends to be Henry V wooing Lady Catherine of France, and he waxes romantic as Romeo notices the light through yonder window breaking in the form of Juliet. He’s a scary Macbeth and a depressing Richard II.

But mostly he’s a brilliant Roger Rees, a man who seems to be in love with acting and its lore. He can talk about his dear friends Ben Kingsley and Judi Dench in between stories about being given Charles Laughton’s boots and having dinner with Sir Laurence Olivier.

Some of the evening’s funniest moments come from students writing about Shakespeare and mangling everything (“Hamlet had an edible complex.”) And some of the evening’s best moments come from other writers, most notably James Thurber (The Macbeth Murder Mystery) and Charles Dickens (Great Expectations, Nicholas Nickleby).

You couldn’t ask for a more charming host through the world of Shakespeare and the theater. Rees is not only a brilliant actor but also a warm, wonderful human being (or at least plays one convincingly on stage).
In short, What You Will is the funniest, smartest, most delightful show you’ll see this summer.

What You Will continues through Aug. 9 at American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $29-$85. Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.


Roger Rees ramps up What You Will

“I’m so old people will say, `Is he still alive?'”

That’s Roger Rees exaggerating people’s response to his arrival in San Francisco with his one-man show What You Will, an evening of Shakespeare, stories about Shakespeare and about performing Shakespeare, that begins performances today (July 18) at the American Conservatory Theater.

The Welsh-born Rees, 64, is one of those extraordinary actors who can seemingly do anything. He won a Tony Award in 1982 for his work in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre’s production of The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, a gargantuan, two-part undertaking in which Rees played the leading role. He’s also familiar from his many TV appearances – Robin Colcord on “Cheers,” Lord John Marbury on “The West Wing” and more recently, Dr. Colin Marlow, the surgeon who patted Cristina Yang’s ass on “Grey’s Anatomy.”

Rees also co-wrote, with his partner, Rick Elice (co-writer of Jersey Boys) a hit comedy thriller called Double, Double (which ran for a year in London’s West End with Rees starring opposite Jane Lapotaire), and he ran the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts for three years.

As previously stated, the man can do just about anything.

Rees was last in San Francisco as the director of Bebe Neuwirth’s
Kurt Weill revue, Here Lies Jenny, three years ago. His only other experience with the Bay Area prior to that was as a vacationer in Sonoma and as an actor playing the villain in Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot, which filmed in Point Reyes.

Rees developed What You Will with Beth Emerson at the Folger Theatre in Washington, D.C., and performed it there and at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. He calls the show “an evening of juxtaposed material” and says the show is “changing as I do it.”

The show includes some great Shakespeare soliloquies (male and female) and stories of Rees’ onstage experiences and even includes “appearances” by Noel coward, James Thurber, Charles Dickens and Stevie Wonder.

“I do soliloquies and relate stories and offer commentary about characters and acting,” Rees says. “It seems to have a nice shape of an evening. It’s really about the humanity you need to bring to bear when performing Shakespeare.”

Before putting this show together, Rees recalls doing similar patchwork evenings in England, when, on days off, he and Judi Dench and her husband, Michael Williams, would perform a similar kind of show.

“We’d drive up to some stately home and perform,” Rees recalls. “In the end, we had so many of these party pieces – 26 of them – that we created the show 26 Characters in Search of an Author. We assigned each letter of the alphabet to a favorite piece.”

After performing in Hamlet with Virginia McKenna (whom Rees describes as “a great English actress”), Rees and McKenna continued exploring mother and son relationships with a show called, appropriately, Sons and Mothers.

With What You Will, Rees is hoping to get the show solidly on its feet then tour extensively. “I’m thinking of this as something we can take around the English-speaking world spreading the word of Shakespeare,” he says.

While he was running the Williamstown Theatre Festival, Rees wasn’t on stage a whole lot, though he was on the Tony nominating committee last year and saw everything. “I’ll do it again this year,” he says. “I love being an audience. It was a fascinating and wonderful experience. That’s the thing about theater – there’s something for everybody, and it’s different every time.”

That’s part of the reason he loves being an actor on stage – because it’s different every time.

“You get to do the whole thing again the next night,” he says. “I love telling stories in a room to other people. Film scripts get smaller and smaller, and once you get the scene right, you never do it again. Theater is scary because things go wrong and you always wish you were better. Doors get stuck and guns don’t end up where they should be. It’s a perilous thing that is supposed to be serious. Nothing could be more stupid than an actor without a prop.”

Though afraid of the old axiom that an actor’s legs are the first to go, Rees says he’s standing sturdily these days, and he’s delighted to be returning to San Francisco.

“Audiences there have a real sense of occasion,” he says. “They have a great knack for going to the theater in sensible and clever ways.”

Roger Rees’ What You Will runs July 18 through Aug. 9 at American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $29-$85. Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org for information.




Rees’ pieces: Roger Rees in SF!

You probably know Roger Rees from his TV work — Robin Colcord on “Cheers,” the British ambassador on “The West Wing” and the doctor with a thing for Christina Yang on “Grey’s Anatomy.”

But if that’s all you know of Rees, prepare to see the real thing. The TV work is great (and even one of the world’s greatest actors has to pay the bills), but in July, Bay Area audiences will be treated to Rees on stage, all by himself in What You Will, a 90-minute, one-man show through all things Shakespearean.

Rees, a Tony and Olivier award winner for his mind-blowing work in the title role of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s monumental The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, presents the greatest soliloquies from Shakespeare and tells backstage tales of the funniest disasters ever perpetrated on a Shakespearean stage. Romeo, Juliet, Juliet’s nurse, Macbeth, Hamlet, Richard II and even Charles Dickens, James Thurber, Noel Coward and Stevie Wonder make appearances in What You Will.

The show runs July 18-Aug. 9 at American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $29-$85. Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org for information. Special “groundling seat” tickets at the front of the orchestra will be old to students each night for $20.