Arden's 'Peter Pan': A fresh, clever retelling, with imagination

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Jo Vito Ramirez (left) as Peter and Emilie Krause as Wendy in “Peter Pan,” through Jan. 28 at Arden Theatre Company.

Dozens and dozens of kids were at Tuesday morning’s performance of Peter Pan, and, once seated, they did a beautiful thing.

We begin in an RV camp in the woods (with a vintage two-wheel Shasta camper trailer in the background), not in London. People fly, but there’s no attempt to hide the ropes. Peter’s gauntlets are made of Mountain Dew cans. And that Shasta camper stays onstage the whole time: Like everyone and everything else in this engaging production, it’s playing a double role.

As they were meant to, the kids saw through the stagecraft – yet they still gave themselves whole-souled. They were laughing only seconds in. They quieted at scary Captain Hook (played with pitiable dignity by a bald, black-lipped Catharine K. Slusar). They cock-a-doodle-dooed with Peter (a likable, athletic wild-child, as played by Jo Vito Ramírez). And when time came to cheer and clap, they really brought it.

This is Scottish playwright Douglas Irvine’s retelling of J.M. Barrie’s tale. It’s all a dream. Time will take children from mothers; director Whit McLaughlin says in playbill notes that Peter Pan is about “the inevitability of their leaving.”

These kids didn’t know that. Too busy having fun. There were special effects – clever ones, especially in the evocation of Tinkerbell – but they tended toward the homemade. The best ones made you imagine, freshening this oft-told tale. With Wendy felled by an arrow, Peter and crew build her a house, all out of hand movements. During sword fights, no swords – folks shout “shang-shing!” as they whip them out of imaginary sheaths. We never see the crocodile, but we hear that ticking clock, and the camper lights flash.

With attractive energy, Emilie Krause plays Wendy as a woman-girl, hurt that Peter is too busy being Peter to note her feelings. With admirable smoothness, Brandon J. Pierce plays Michael and a range of other roles. Remarkable, rubber-mugged Leah Walton is Smee and various mermaids and pirates. Eliana Fabiyi is terrific as Jane, Tootles, and also, via her trusty violin, Tinkerbell’s voice, creaking ship planks, and other soundscapes.

Slusar is a tragic, vulnerable Hook. He’s terrified of time, of that clock in the hungry crock’s gut. When Peter triumphs over him – “I am youth! I am joy! I am the little bird who has broken out of the egg!” – Hook really hates him.

The kids had a ball. One little girl behind me was chosen to play Tinkerbell in a climactic scene, and her friends cried, “You’re so lucky! You’re going to be an actor!” She nailed it.

This Peter Pan is manageable for the littlest littles, diverting for the middle littles. There’s plenty the family can talk about later, plenty of silliness, some darkness, and only very stylized violence. Parents may find a tear on the lashes at this depiction of the bargain parents always lose with time. When daughter Jane asks Wendy if she can go off with Peter (already forgetting Wendy), what can a mother say but “Yes, of course”?

Peter Pan. Through Jan. 28. Arden Theatre Company, 40 N. 2d. St. Tickets: $20-$36. Information: 215-922-1122, ardentheatre.org.