Director Paul Curtiss is un-setting the stage for Milton High School’s upcoming performance of “Peter Pan.”
“I’ve seen in the past a lot of productions try to bring it all to you,” said Curtiss, separating himself from gaudy stage adaptations and expensive Hollywood remakes, dripping with special effects and post-production dollars.
“We’re going tell it a little bit differently,” he said.
Peter Pan first appeared in a 1902 story by Scottish playwright and novelist J.M. Barrie. Barrie’s older brother died in an ice-skating accident when he was 13 and was the inspiration for the character Peter Pan, or “the boy who wouldn’t grow up.”
Since Barrie’s death, Peter Pan has appeared in countless reproductions and expansions on the original work, and the charming and cheeky title character has become a cultural icon. The more recent Warner Bros. adaptation of the story, “Pan,” was released in 2015, with a star-studded cast and a $150 million budget.
Siobhan Shepard, an MHS junior cast as Wendy’s brother, John, said she hadn’t seen any version of the story prior to getting the role. And she was encouraged not to.
“Our director had told us he didn’t really want it Disney-esque,” Shepard said.
“We live in such a literal world these days,” Curtiss added. “We want everything before us, everything in high definition. We’re going to try to meet [the audience] somewhere in the middle.”
The play begins in a warehouse, where a group of trespassers have broken in and come across a pile of wooden boxes. Filled with old props and costumes, the boxes serve as a magical entry point into the fairytale.
“We’re playing with this idea of imagination and play,” Curtiss said about the opening scene. And he expects the audience to join in.
Alana Bigos, a junior playing Wendy’s youngest brother, Michael, said this imaginative change in setting makes the play unique.
“I was pretty happy when I got this role. It’s pretty cool to be able to go through both worlds of London and then to Neverland,” she said, referring to the imaginary island and host to the play’s most memorable characters.
Barrie’s invented faraway island, where time ceases to exist, is often used as a metaphor for escapism, for a place where the responsibilities of growing up and living in the “real world” can be avoided. The themes are particularly relevant to high school students preparing to enter adulthood.
“It’s a sad play,” Curtiss said. “It’s tragic in the sense that it’s about losing childhood. Wendy is the tragic figure in that she slowly, throughout the play, realizes she’s growing up. She’s the one who wants to be the mother even though it’s a kid’s game.”
Curtiss said the costumes will be recognizable to the audience, though some are given a modern twist. Peter Pan’s tunic is traded in for a green T-shirt, and his felt woodsman hat is swapped out for a green winter beanie with an embroidered red feather.
One notable change is the absence of any Native American characters, except for Tiger Lily, the daughter of Chief Great Big Little Panther.
Barrie’s original story refers to Native Americans as a “Piccaninny Tribe,” “redskins,” and “savages,” and stage and film adaptations have often portrayed them as caricatures.
Curtiss said his production has changed all offensive references to Native Americans to “warriors.” And Tiger Lily will be introduced to the audience wearing a leather jacket with the words “T. Lily” on the back.
“There’s a reference to the character but maybe not the culture,” Curtiss said.
The cast has been rehearsing after school up to five days a week since September, and they will be in the MHS auditorium until 9 p.m. every day until the first show this Thursday night.
“When we come to rehearsal, I feel like the energy is totally different,” said Lilly Thatcher, a freshman and cast choreographer who is also playing Mrs. Darling and a pirate. “I feel like I can let go, and our director keeps saying, ‘Lets play.’”
Catch MHS’ “Peter Pan” November 16-18 at 7 p.m. and a Saturday matinee at 2 p.m.