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'Peter and the Starcatcher' opens at Craterian Theater

Bestselling suspense novelist Ridley Pearson was reading a book about Peter Pan with his 5-year-old daughter when she asked, "How did Peter meet Captain Hook in the first place?"

That simple query prompted a whole series of questions in Pearson's mind about the origins of Neverland's most famous inhabitant.

He combined his thriller sensibilities with humor columnist Dave Barry's wit to co-write "Peter and the Starcatchers." The popular Peter Pan prequel eventually became a hit play on Broadway — losing an "s" in the title along the way and picking up five Tony awards — as "Peter and the Starcatcher."

Southern Oregon University's Theatre Arts program is now bringing the play to Rogue Valley audiences. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Friday, May 26; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, May 27, and 2 p.m. Sunday, May 28, at the Craterian Theater, 23 S. Central Ave., Medford. Tickets are $22, $10 for ages 6 through 20, and can be purchased at craterian.org or by calling 541-779-3000.

David McCandless, SOU professor of theater and the director of the play, says "Peter and the Starcatcher" is one of the funniest plays he's read in a long time. Writer and former stage actor Rick Elice took the book by Pearson and Barry and crafted the script for the play version.

"It's full of witticisms and has some broad humor, too," McCandless says. "It's a mix of sophisticated and sophomoric. What I like most about it is the wit."

Named for his trademark black mustache, the villain of the play is Black Stache — a reference to the notorious pirate Blackbeard, who plagued the seas surrounding the West Indies and Britain's North American colonies. Although Black Stache cultivated a fearsome persona, he undermines himself by misusing words and telling anachronistic jokes.

Black Stache is destined to become Captain Hook after losing his hand in an undignified accident.

His first mate, Smee, follows Black Stache along on harebrained schemes, even when it means disguising himself as a mermaid — with decidedly unattractive results.

Peter Pan emerges as Black Stache's nemesis, although he starts out as an orphan who was so neglected he had no name and had never seen the sun. One of Peter Pan's orphan companions is so hungry he faints at the mention of pudding and, after landing on an enchanted island, spends most of his time trying to figure out how to eat a pineapple.

Laced with humor, the play also is about human bonds, especially when it comes to Peter Pan's growing attachment to the girl Molly.

"The heart of the play is about the friendship between Molly and the boy who becomes Peter Pan by virtue of his friendship with her," McCandless says. "There's a great human story amidst all of the shenanigans and high jinks."

The play transports audiences to a dizzying variety of locales — including aboard a ship with a hurricane approaching, a mountaintop lookout point on an island and a deep, dark jungle.

Rather than using elaborate scenery, "Peter and the Starcatcher" relies on the audience to bring the story to life. 

"The play is constructed in a minimalist, do-it-yourself way," McCandless says. "It is, at heart, just a bunch of actors with simple props appealing to the audience's imagination. That's integral to the play's appeal."

When "Peter and the Starcatcher" premiered on Broadway in 2012, it was going up against lavish spectacles such as "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark." The comic book-inspired play with suspended actors flying through the air cost more than $1 million to stage each week and was plagued with technical problems, cost overruns and injuries. Late night comedian Stephen Colbert joked it might change its title to "Spider-Man: Notify Next of Kin."

While critics wrote scathing reviews of the Spider-Man debacle, "Peter and the Starcatcher" received far more positive press.

"One of the challenges for any group who comes after that is the Broadway show was so popular and acclaimed," McCandless says. "It's about finding our own unique path. We want to honor the spirit of the original but come up with our own version."

He says the play, which also includes catchy songs, appeals to kids and adults alike.

"It really is a play the whole family will enjoy. Peter Pan is a story that fascinates, delights and appeals to people of all ages. It really captures the imagination," he says.

The cast includes Bernard Hefner, Ethan Hennes, John Alan Hulbert, Grant Luecke, Alex Magni, Samantha Miller, Meghan Nealon, Nolan Sanchez, Kyle Sanderson, Eric Solis, Jonah Thorpe-Kramp, Krista Unverferth and Tavis Williams.

The design team consists of Sean O’Skea (set), Michael Stanfill (lighting), Estrella Page-Lopez (costumes) and Reilly Schrader-Dee (sound). Jennifer Schloming provides musical direction, and Cailey McCandless is choreographer.