‘Starcatcher’ takes us back to childhood – Peter Pan’s and ours

“Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them/Printing their proud hooves i’ the receiving Earth. ...” That rousing speech begins Shakespeare’s “Henry V,” and a similar invocation to the imagination starts “Peter and the Starcatcher.” Trust your mind and spirit, not your eyes, we’re told. The reward is immense.

I couldn’t hope to encapsulate Rick Elice’s plot, which has the longest synopsis I’ve ever read for a play on Wikipedia. It adapts the novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson and shows how Peter Pan acquires a name, a home in Neverland and an immortal destiny. It’s a prequel to James Barrie’s play with puns, anachronism and endless lunacy thrown in.

What matters most is the way it reduces theater to basic elements: a few props, costumes that don’t change much (except in one faintly naughty number between acts sung by mermaids), sets that consist mainly of painted backdrops.

A crocodile gets conjured up with two red eyes, white paper teeth and snorts of breath that flutter the thin walls of the set. A rope can serve as a set of stairs, a wave, a ship’s deck or railing. The dozen actors pop in and out of multiple characters within seconds, and we never lose our place.

In my favorite moment, directors Roger Rees and Alex Timbers stand the cast in a line; young Molly (the starcatcher, who helps Peter find his identity) turns an actor to the side, and a creaking noise indicates she’s entering a room. As she opens each “door,” the cast leaps into action to show what goes on in that room. I reach for an air-sickness bag when someone gushes about “the magic of illusion,” but I don’t know what else to call it.

Yes, the actors matter. Without the fragile but stalwart Peter of Joey deBettencourt or the assertive but tender Molly of Megan Stern, playing a protofeminist smarter and braver than most boys, the emotional core of the show would be gone. We’d feel no twinge of sadness, thinking of all Peter will miss by staying locked in adolescence.

The over-actors matter, too, especially John Sanders as Black Stache. He plays the pirate who’s soon to be hooked into an eternal duel with Peter, and he’s grade-A ham to the bone. He takes one line of dialogue – “My God” – and stretches it out to the audience’s delight, until it’s as long as the opening soliloquy of “Richard III.” What else can one expect from a character with Groucho Marx’s leer, swagger and facial hair?

But what counts most is the sense of wonder we take away from the event. The actors break the “fourth wall” of the stage, addressing us directly; Stache even ad-libbed (or seemed to) Tuesday, after a playgoer gave him a hand.

We’re right on top of the actors in Knight Theater and can see all their transparently clever tricks. But the more outrageously they pretend, the more readily we want to believe.