Peter Panties's frankness and freedom are liberatingly funny
By Niall McNeil and Marcus Youssef. Directed by Steven Hill and Lois Anderson. Music by Veda Hille. A Neworld Theatre and Leaky Heaven Circus coproduction. Presented by the Cultch and the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival. At the Cultch on Thursday, February 3. Continues until February 13
I felt like I was tobogganing, careening downhill with no idea where the sled was going to take me—and loving it. The ideas and images whipping past were more exhilarating than an icy wind on a sunny mountain day. No wonder I kept screaming.
Peter Panties is the story of J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan as reimagined by the team of writers Niall McNeil and Marcus Youssef, directors Steven Hill and Lois Anderson, composer Veda Hille, and a fantastic company of musicians, actors, and designers.
McNeil, who has Down syndrome, is a crucial creative source for this hourlong show and, in important ways, his artistry and world-view set its terms. Basically, McNeil and company loosen the corset of Barrie’s Victorian masterpiece and let its flesh hang out. Like his forebear, this Peter is conflicted about growing up. “Fuck that! No mustache!” members of a band called the Bank Dogs sing on his behalf. But this Peter also desperately wants to have sex with Wendy, and make a baby. (Wendy agrees that they should take off their pants and skirt—but they’ve got to do it backstage.)
This frankness and freedom are liberatingly funny, but they’re aching too. Sexual exclusion and the denial of full adulthood are no laughing matters. In dealing with these subjects, McNeil emerges as a serious and wildly associative artist. His Captain Hook blurs in and out of being Macbeth: ambitious, overreaching, and, ultimately, racked with guilt. When Hook kidnaps Wendy—the kidnapping is grisly, and a bit too long, in this version—the folks who investigate are from CSI: Las Vegas (second season).
McNeil’s syntax is eccentric and his language forceful; the result is poetry. Nowhere is this more exciting than in Hille’s songs. When the first number begins with an escalating series of exclamations—“Oh my God! Oh mighty God! I pray to you, fucking God!”—she matches the breathless words with an accumulation of ascending notes and rhythms. Throughout, Hille’s music rocks, and the Bank Dogs, who all look about 15 years old, are beyond cool—swaying to the music, tossing their hair.
The cast is uniformly fantastic. Its members include James Long as the strangely innocent yet adult Peter; Sasa Brown as the deep, still Wendy; Tanya Podlozniuk as the hilariously hard-bitten Tinker Bell; Peter Anderson as the haunted Hook; and Allan Zinyk and Lesley Ewen as Wendy’s disturbing parents, Mr. and Mrs. Darling.
Joe Hawk’s set, which climaxes in a stunner of a set/costume moment, looks like it’s built for touring. May it go international.
Cowriter Youssef and directors Hill and Anderson do a tremendous job of both honouring and shaping McNeil’s sensibility—often through metatheatricality. In a film clip, we see Youssef interviewing McNeil, so we know how the show was written, and at times actors quote directly from these interviews rather than playing out the scene. The tremendous thing about this is that it acknowledges the audience’s involvement in creating the theatrical reality.
We’re included. And inclusion is what this show is all about.