Sunday, August 31, 2014

2014.08.31 A Musical On Steroids

If you stop and think about it, what goes on in someone’s imagination is naturally completely chaotic, full of color, and with enough explosive creative energy to be a reprise of Creation itself.

We just saw Finding Neverland at the A.R.T. (American Repertory Theater) in Cambridge. It’s a romp, a kick, a hoot, a virtual riot of dance and song—sheer fun, but not without the painful shadowing of death, loss and grief.  

It is the story of J.M. Barrie (1860-1937), Scottish dramatist and the the creator of Peter Pan This play is about how Barrie got out of what we might call writers’ block with the help of children and a grieving but fun-loving widow who shared Barrie’s determination not to let the “valley of the shadow of death” overwhelm joy, laughter, and mischief.

Barrie looks like a dour Scot who rarely smiles, no? But what went on inside this man’s imagination was electric, delightfully naughty. He made fun of stiff British manners. The play’s writer, James Graham, wanted to capture Barrie's spirit of playfulness and British cheek: “To be cheeky is to charmingly undermine the status quo—something we’re naturally adept at as kids, but chicken out of as adults.”

Peter Pan, named after Peter Llewelyn Davies, one of the children in the family Barrie befriends, is particularly bent on being sensible, realistic, and keeping his feet firmly on the ground at all times. It’s how he contains his grief. Barrie is bent on flying. He believes in magic, wishes, fairies, and cheek. It’s how he manages his own grief at the loss of a brother and his beloved. These two ways of managing the pain of the human condition carry the tension of the drama. The duets between the adult Barrie, played by Jeremy Jordan, and Peter, played by Aidan Gemme, elegantly articulate the impasse. Out of the tension pops Peter Pan.

Peter Pan is well known to most all of us, and isn’t it true that most of us at some point in our lives would wish for never-ending youth, existence in the never-never land of never never growing old and dying?  I remember that mid-life clarion call, that assumption even, that I might stay young and vital—if I just ate this, did this and that with my body, had a spiritual practice for my soul, followed the best and most up-to-date health rules. I failed of course, and, in addition, the rules for my wish-prescriptions changed every other day. I’m old now, and happy.

My favorite line in the show was delivered, with wry but not sardonic wit, by one of the actors who, when asked if he believed in fairies, said, without a smirk: “Of course I do, darling, I’m in the theater. I meet fairies every day.”

My only critique of this amazing performance, is the venue. The pace, volume, and drumbeat dynamism, in music and dance, of this production almost overwhelmed the space, stage and hall, in which it was performed. It almost overwhelmed the audience as well. However, the goings-on in the human unconscious mind, including its raging battles with the villain we all have within (Captain Hook) have no nuance. Therefore, the play, especially Act I, perfectly reflects this phenomenon. It was like being inside Vesuvius.

My favorite moment, of course, was when the audience was invited to clap if they believe in fairies. Their clapping will keep Tinker Bell alive. By then most of us were thoroughly in touch with being a child; we clapped and cheered like mad. (Except for the couple next to us who never moved a muscle throughout, although I saw one smile slightly.) Our exuberance succeeded; the fairy lit up her light and lived on to great cheers.

I whispered to myself, "The light of Christ."

Some days I wish we Anglocatholic Episcopalians could raise up such a rumpus for Jesus. Still, it isn’t our style, and God doesn’t want us to fake our praises. But maybe just once?  Someone will remind me now that God is not a magician. But how do we know?

Leaving the theater, I felt delightfully manic—slain in the Spirit, you could say, and a better high than any drug. We walked to the T station, took a bus, and walked home from our stop. The stars twinkled. We all are made of stars. As one bit of lyric went: “Just take the last star on the right and follow it home.” We walked home—not on the sensible sidewalk but down the middle of our one-way street, holding hands.

I thought I would never be able to sleep. We relived some good moments, did not talk about the Church, and slept like babies.

"Always be a little kinder than necessary." J. M. Barrie. 

Finding Neverland will go next to Broadway in NYC where  a venue up to its stamina will take it on. It is in Cambridge till September 28. Don't miss it.