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‘Peter Pan’ takes flight in a tent amid CGI

Reporting From San Francisco —

Southern California audiences have become accustomed over the last two decades to being entertained inside a tent, thanks to Cirque du Soleil’s elaborately made-up and costumed circus acts, with their otherworldly narratives delivered in other languages.

By contrast, the production of “Peter Pan” that opens Sunday in a big-top setting in Costa Mesa is a familiar English-language tale that generations have experienced through theater, television and movies.

“‘Peter Pan’ has been seen so often that we wanted to bring something special to it, yet we felt an obligation to serve the source material,” said co-producer Mat Churchill, 44. “What emerged is what I think of as ‘total theater.’”

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“Total theater,” in Churchill’s usage, means an immersion into a variety of staging techniques, from the traditional to the heretofore unseen.

On the one hand, the acting — 23 actors in 30 parts — has a Shakespearean feel. But the counterpart to that is a new visual technique of computer-generated imagery (CGI) technology — a variation of what Pixar uses in its movies — to provide a 360-degree backdrop of scenery — inside a tent.

Overseen by William Dudley, the production’s set, costume and 3-D production designer, it’s the first time this has been applied to a live theater setting. The programming process reportedly took 200 computers four weeks to create the moving images that are projected via 15,000 square feet of high-resolution video onto the inside of the tent.

When the harness-clad actors playing the children are lifted aloft to fly for the first time, they actually remain virtually motionless — instead, it’s the panoramic background of an animated London projected around the inside of the tent that swirls in a rush of movement.

“We’re pleased with that bit,” said Churchill in what’s a breathless leap of understatement, even by English standards.

Scottish author J.M. Barrie wrote more than 25 plays and novels in a successful career but is now remembered almost exclusively for this 106-year-old work, which remains a classic of children’s literature.

The writer based his imagined tale of childhood on a real-life family he had met and befriended when both lived near London’s Kensington Gardens and set it in that real-life public park where his characters escape to a Neverland of “lost boys,” pirates and a fairy.

The locale itself was the source of this undertaking.

“We had the opportunity to do something temporary in Kensington Gardens,” said Churchill. “The question of what we would stage there was never at issue.”

Instead, the question was how to do it.

The modern theatrical models of Barrie’s story, familiar to American audiencs over the last 50 years, had become increasingly frivolous. A pixie-ish Peter invariably was played by a female lead, following in the footsteps of Mary Martin and Cathy Rigby. Tinker Bell the fairy was usually represented as a light blinking on and off. This production marks a return to Barrie’s source material. It’s a straight play in which Peter is played by a male and Tinker Bell is played by an actress.

In summer 2009, the production was unveiled in a 100-foot-high tent put up in the gardens. It was a popular hit, if not universally critically admired (reviewers have seemed generally wowed by the staging but found the heart of the story to be lacking).

After a second Christmastime appearance elsewhere in London, the production was shipped 6,000 miles through the Panama Canal to touch down in San Francisco for its U.S. premiere in May, with a three-month-plus run in a green space across the street from the Embarcadero waterfront. Now it has settled in on the grounds of the Orange County Performing Arts Center complex.

Among its novelties, this “Peter Pan” comes with a Captain Hook who actually likes children. Well, the actor playing him does — provided, mind you, they are well behaved.

Australian-born Jonathan Hyde has spotted a difference in the way the play generates a response in England and the U.S., and he prefers how it is playing here.

“Compared to the audiences in Kensington Gardens, these audiences are exemplary, exemplary!”

Between Sunday performances in San Francisco, Hyde, 62 and long since a father twice over, offered an impassioned soliloquy on the virtues of young “Peter Pan"-goers, stateside versus London.

“The children here are much more attentive, much more quiet — at Kensington Gardens it was like [being in] an aviary sometimes. How are they going to learn anything, understand anything, or take anything in, if all they do is talk? But here [in San Francisco] they have been incredibly good, and I have the same hopes for Orange County.”

Hyde plays a dual role, first as the children’s father, Mr. Darling (“dad is petulant”) and then as Captain Hook (“a psychotic”).

“The one is fairly tame and ineffective,” said Hyde. “The other is offhandedly lethal … he rather thoughtlessly kills someone within 20 seconds of being on stage.

“Hook is a snob, and in life I’ve found that snobs are always lonely,” said Hyde. “Hook is rather like MacBeth: He is ruthlessly able to chart his own moral collapse. But he also makes me think of Mercutio, he’s absolutely static, can’t change. By the same token, you can’t get more static than Peter Pan — he’s absolutely trapped within his own will, he won’t grow up. But he is happy, while Hook is miserable.”

The Shakespearean analogies come easily to Hyde, whose acting pedigree is built on a four-decade career, including myriad roles with the Royal Shakespeare Company. He was in Ian McKellen’s celebrated repertory productions of “King Lear” and “The Seagull” at UCLA in fall 2007.

His dramatic bona fides clearly infuse the role — at a couple of Bay Area performances in late August, looks of rapt wonder were seen on the faces of parents as often as their children. As a result of what he is putting into the roles, and after 346 performances of the work, Hyde doesn’t underestimate the toll that eight appearances a week in “Peter Pan” can take.

“Doing the weekend [four shows from Saturday to Sunday], that’s the killer punch,” he said. “I will be running on empty by Sunday night as far as adrenaline goes.”

calendar@latimes.com


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