ST. PETERSBURG — The open beams, which bear the weight of a sailing ship, catch the eye even before Peter and the Starcatcher begins at Freefall Theatre.
The smell of burlap and canvas hangs in the air like the inside of an old tent. Whether that scent existed beyond my imagination really doesn't matter. The scenic design by Charles Murdock Lucas is that convincing.
A prequel to J.M. Barrie's 1904 play Peter Pan, Starcatcher began as a young adult novel by Ridley Pearson and Dave Barry. Rick Elice adapted the book as a stage play, which won five Tonys in 2012.
Some productions want to entertain and skip anything too deep or troublesome. Others go for meaning and intend to challenge the audience.
This one, directed by Freefall's artistic director Eric Davis, does both. Scenes shift in seconds, with minimal costume or set changes. A dozen actors make it happen, some playing multiple roles or even forming part of the set itself, as when several of them link up to become the prow of a ship. Even a carefully held coonskin cap gets a cameo as a nuzzling cat.
The scenes jump in quantum space between ships on the high seas, an island inhabited by cannibals who can't decide whether they want to be entertained by their guests or eat them, above and below the decks and under water.
There's a plot, something about steamer trunks and pirate treasure. But that doesn't matter either. This show is almost a spoof of traditional structures, down to an absurdly funny chorus line of mermaids familiar to those of us who remember Weeki Wachee or Webb's City.
The most significant story line is the direction of Peter, whose experiences have cheated him out of the childhood he will soon outgrow. Molly, the older teen who is drawn to him, is the counterargument to never growing up, the central choice Peter will have to make.
Scenes between Peter (Lucas Wells) and Molly (Kelly Pekar) on the ship's deck provide the show's sweetest and most captivating moments. It is a credit to everyone involved that none of this wonderment comes across as the least bit cloying. A lighthearted touch throughout delves into silliness, including jokes about flatulence and vomiting (most of the central characters, after all, are adolescent boys) without turning this into a silly play.
Challenging Peter, Molly and Molly's kidnaped father, Lord Leonard Aster (played with charming sadness by Daniel Schwab), is pirate leader Black Stache. As the flamboyant Captain Hook corollary, Chris Crawford keeps the comic relief at a high level.
As sometimes happens at Freefall, the staging at times extends into the audience. Even when it doesn't, watching the characters try to walk on stage during a storm could give you motion sickness.
Musicians Michael Raabe on piano and Burt Rushing, who plays a slew of percussion instruments, deserve special mention. The pair supply a running gallery of sound effects worthy of an NPR radio show, consistent with the numerous fun elements of this show.
Contact Andrew Meacham at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.