SALT LAKE CITY — Theatre can be magic, but it usually is not. Although I enjoy most of the plays I see, the majority of evenings that I spend in a theater aren’t those truly magical, unique experiences that I remember forever. But the hope is always there that, “Maybe tonight is the night,” and this will be one of those times when I fall in love with the moments that a playwright, director, and actors create. The Off Broadway Theatre’s Peter and the Pirates was a theatrical experience that I will always remember. Unfortunately, it is because this play is so wrongheaded in its conception and execution that the sheer awfulness of the evening will persist in my memory as the standard by which I will judge how bad future non-Equity productions can be.
The Off Broadway Theatre specializes in parodies of stories from popular culture—with a Utah twist. Peter and the Pirates is their takeoff of the Peter Pan story. In this version, Peter Pun takes Cindy and the children she babysits, Joann and Michelle, to Ever Clever Land, where children never grow up. There the evil Captain Crook, Peter’s nemesis, plans to kidnap Sego Lily (an Indian princess apparently named after the Utah state flower) and kill Peter. In one fell swoop Peter rescues Sego Lily, defeats Crook, and the show ends. Don’t let the simplicity of the synopsis fool you; this play lasts 2 hours (not including intermission), which should give a hint about the sheer amount of padding in Eric Jensen‘s script.
The acting in this production basically consists of incessant mugging to the audience. Most of the dialogue exists to set up the next pun or joke—many of which have obvious punchlines that I could easily see coming long before the actors uttered them. (A joke in the first scene is so current that it appears in a 1991 episode of The Simpsons.) In every scene the actors would say the punchlines and then nod at the audience (or say, “Huh? Huh?”), hoping for the laughs to come. As if that weren’t enough the actors sometimes went as far as to explain why the jokes were funny (or supposed to be). For example, in the final scene one character in the throws of death kicked a nearby bucket, and then said, “I kicked the bucket.” If that weren’t enough he then stated, “That means I died.” I could put up with a handful of this style of humor, but an entire night of it was just unbearable.
In addition to the general tendency of the entire cast to completely disregard the fourth wall, there are a few specific acting flaws that need to be discussed in an honest, open review. Eric Jensen (who, in addition to acting in the show and writing the script, also directed the play) had many “comic” bits that lagged on far too long, such as his bird calls or when he was disarming Peter. Eric Jensen seemed to have written the script in order to give himself all of the “best” (i.e., longest) jokes as he played Atchmee—one of Crook’s pirate sidekicks. Unfortunately, this meant neglecting the other pirate characters and resulted in a show that felt incredibly self-indulgent. Austinn Jensen, as Peter Pun, clearly enjoyed playing the title character, but after his first scene he often failed to enunciate his lines. Also, Chloe Beus was grating with how she affected a quasi-British accent and spoke the vast majority of her lines while facing the audience instead of the actor(s) she was speaking to. This made Beus’s performance more appropriate for a middle school than a $16 ticket. The only major exception to my boundless disdain for the cast was Rusty Bringhurst. Although Bringhurst participated in the mugging and the childish antics of the rest of the cast, he managed to do so without totally sacrificing the veneer of his character, while all of his castmates were clearly just actors marching from joke to joke.
Because he wrote the script, directed the play, and portrayed one of the biggest roles, I lay the blame for the incredibly low quality of the production at the feet of Eric Jensen. In addition to the juvenile script (complete with poop jokes and offensive racist “humor”), Eric Jensen’s directing style prevented the play from having any sort of coherence. Peter and the Pirates is burdened by shoddy directing, even in the nuts and bolts of the craft. For example, Peter fought Crook with a very short knife, while the latter had a long rapier-like sword. This made the fight look incredibly awkward and also made Crook look like an idiot for not stabbing Peter from a safe distance. Another example of poor direction was in the first Indian scene: all of the actors were arranged in a perfectly straight line across the stage. With the basics of good directing so ignored, it should be no surprise that the artistic aspects were similarly neglected, with little actual acting happening on stage (although a lot of joking and reciting lines was to be seen).
My regular readers know that normally in a review I would also discuss some of the technical elements (e.g., costumes, lighting, set) of the play. But to do so in detail would just be pointless, because all were unremarkable, except perhaps for the Crocodile’s costume. It’s clear already from the tone of the review that I think that attending Peter and the Pirates was a waste of my time; I also think that attending it would be a waste of my readers’ time. Dwelling on the details would merely be kicking them while they’re down. I’ll merely sum up by emphasizing how thoroughly misguided this production was in every aspect that I can’t imagine anyone in their right mind enjoying it at all. Truly, this is the first play I have ever attended where I thought something was actually wrong with the audience members who were having a good time. Peter and the Pirates isn’t even viable as so-bad-it’s-good entertainment. I recommend to readers that if they want to see a silly parody that they should try Desert Star Playhouse instead.