New York Times Reviews

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Spare Times: For Children
By Laurel Graeber
Published: April 30, 2010

A new production of this J. M. Barrie classic offers something that may seem even more remarkable than a magical, ageless boy who flies: a boy playing a magical, ageless boy who flies.

Defying the tradition of casting a woman, the New Acting Company, a program of The Children’s Aid Society, has based its “Peter Pan” on John Caird and Trevor Nunn’s 1982 Royal Shakespeare Company adaptation, a partly narrated drama that starred a young man. Stephen Michael Rondel, this version’s producer and director, takes that conceit further. Here Zach Zamsky, 12, makes a charming Peter, conveying all the exuberance and mischievousness of, well, a 12-year-old.

Mr. Rondel has also introduced his own unorthodox touches, including casting himself as the voice of Tinkerbell, otherwise described as female. While children at a recent performance found this hysterically funny, I couldn’t help picturing Harvey Fierstein channeling Edna Turnblad every time Tinkerbell spoke. An even more radical innovation subverts the usual Freudian trick (also followed by Mr. Caird and Mr. Nunn) of featuring a single actor as Mr. Darling and Captain Hook. Here it is Mrs. Darling who morphs into the pirate.

Synge Maher, an adult actress (at left with Mr. Zamsky), vividly conjures a shrill, neurotic mother whose affection masks ambivalence. Her Captain Hook, whose crew treats her like a crazed Miss Julie, gives menacing orders in a throaty purr more sinister than the usual buffoonish growl. Toddlers seem to find the Mommy/ Hook concept way too scary, and at a running time of slightly over two hours (including an intermission), this play won’t beguile preschoolers.

Theatergoers 6 and older, however, will find much to enchant them, including the talents of other children — Charlotte Williams portrays a passionate Wendy — and Katya Khellblau’s sets and Margeaux Lucas’s art, which render Never Land as a lushly colorful dream. Justin Warner has designed a sweeping video backdrop of aerial views of an imaginary countryside, making audience members feel that they’re also soaring.

But sometimes revisions can seem as old-fashioned as what they replace. When the Darling children return to their contrite, grief-stricken mother, she announces she is going to leave her job and stay home. Would it be too much of a Never Land fantasy to ask that a working mother not be a villain?

(Through May 9 at the Philip Coltoff Center, 219 Sullivan Street, near Bleecker Street, Greenwich Village, 212-868-4444, smarttix.com, childrensaidsociety.org/pcc/nac; $18 in advance; $20, cash only, at the door. This weekend: Friday and Saturday at 7 p.m.; Sunday at 1 and 5 p.m.)

Spare Times
By Laurel Graeber
Published: May 23, 2008

‘ALICE IN WONDERLAND’ Unless you’re an Oxford don with a fondness for nonsense rhymes, onomatopoeia and ceaseless puns, any faithful adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s “Alice” books is likely to be more fun to watch than to listen to. That is mostly true of the New Acting Company’s “Alice in Wonderland,” playing through this weekend in Greenwich Village. Its script, by Brainerd Duffield, includes large excerpts from Carroll’s original text, drawn from both “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and its “Through the Looking Glass” sequel. But this production is so visually rich and energized that children unused to unadulterated Alice-isms aren’t likely to mind that a lot of the dialogue is jabber — or “Jabberwocky,” whose non-English English is recited several times.

The stars, in addition to Zoë Frazer (who makes a spunky Alice, seated above with Maxine Dannatt, left, and Théo Klein) and the rest of the talented cast, are clearly Mark Salinas, the costume designer; Gregg Bellon, who created the set and the lighting; and Margeaux Lucas, who designed the art. Large, twirling panels, painted with scenes like chessboards and fairy-tale landscapes, form the backdrops, and ingenious inventions portray characters like the Walrus (an oversize hand puppet), the Mouse Alice meets in the Pool of Tears (an enormous rod puppet) and the Cheshire Cat (a mural-like design with a lingering fluorescent smile). The Caterpillar alone is worth the price of admission: partly a tower of fringed fabric, it has two children and an adult stacked within it, totem-pole-style, with their arms forming the creature’s legs.

Produced and directed by Stephen Michael Rondel, the play has a non-Victorian soundtrack, which runs from classical to big band to pop, hip-hop and electronica (Stray Cats, Moby, the B-52’s). This Alice travels with an iPod, and the music, to which the actors sometimes dance and lip-sync, often reflects the general absurdity.

Although the company recommends the staging for ages 4 and older, the language and the running time (close to two hours, with one intermission) may be challenges for anyone under 6. As Alice learns, if you really want to explore Wonderland you must be willing to lose your head completely. (Saturday and Sunday at 3 p.m., Philip Coltoff Center, 219 Sullivan Street, between West Third and Bleecker Streets, 212-868-4444, smarttix.com; $16 in advance; $20 at the door.) LAUREL GRAEBER

Family Fare
by Laurel Graeber
Published May 13, 2005
The Hunter and the Hunted

The young hero of The New Acting Company, a program of the Childrens Aid Society, latest production worries that he doesn¹t fit in with his peers or his parents. This may sound like the typical estrangement of a preadolescent who feels that those around him are a different species. But this is Mowgli, the boy of "The Jungle Book," and his fellows really are of different species - namely a bear, a panther and a pack of wolves. Monica Flory's script is both scrupulously faithful to Rudyard Kipling and completely original in its approach. While Kipling¹s story is basically a grand adventure, this version takes its subtext - a boy¹s quest for identity - and makes it the heart of the piece. It includes all the book¹s action and even some of its dialogue, but increases the emotional resonance. The only substantive change is the more hopeful ending. Gregg Bellon, the set designer, has created a vibrant, wild world, augmented by elaborate puppets. Of course, the realism also depends on the talented cast, led by 13-year-old Malik Conard Sow as Mowgli. It also includes Carrie Heitman as the regal panther Bagheera; Stephen Michael Rondel as Baloo, the avuncular bear; Jay Duffer as the treacherous jackal Tabaquai; Christopher L. McAllister I as the vengeful tiger Shere Khan; and Heather Massie as both Kaa, the imposing python, and Raksha, the mother wolf. In Oana Botez-Ban¹s ingenious costumes, these actors may be the most convincing stage animals south of "The Lion King." Directed by David A. Miller, with incidental music by Lucian Ban, this 75-minute "Jungle Book" will easily appeal to theatergoers over 6. When young wolves ask Mowgli, "Where¹s your fur?" and "Don¹t you miss having a tail?," the tone will be familiar. The schoolyard is a jungle, too.