Notes from the arts beat:
"PETER" IN SAN FRANCISCO: It's amazing what you can accomplish with a few lengths of ordinary rope and some imagination.
When "Peter and the Starcatcher" opened in New York on Broadway in 2012, it created a lot of buzz because of its innovative staging. Using minimal sets, this brisk prequel to "Peter Pan" — which follows a beleaguered orphan as he winds up in Neverland as the most famous flying boy in literature — relied on its troupe of actors in many cases to stand in as walls, props, even furniture.
I saw "Peter" in New York after it moved Off-Broadway from the Brooks Atkinson Theatre to the much smaller New World Stages.
Even there, in a small venue, I was dazzled. (That rope became everything from a window on a ship to waves on the ocean.) Now the production has gotten bigger again with the national tour, which opens Tuesday at San Francisco's Curran Theatre.
I got the chance to connect by phone with Joey deBettencourt, who plays Boy in "Peter and the Starcatcher."
He says that even though I saw a much smaller version of the show Off-Broadway in New York, the larger national tour retains the charm.
"It still feels really tight and intimate, the way the set draws everybody in," he says.
In the play, deBettencourt's character is a neglected 13-year-old English boy who mistrusts adults and has never seen the sun. Through a wild series of events, he ends up on a ship named the Neverland — and a fanciful journey that turns out to explain the origins of Peter Pan.
With its mix of slapstick comedy, drama, music and dance, "Peter and the Starcatcher" can be a hard sell because it's difficult to categorize.
"It's a style of theater we don't always get to see," deBettencourt says. "It's like a contemporary vaudeville show. It's not like seeing a musical — but it's also not a straight play."
Other actors have to deliver big comedic or musical moments, but Boy has the central emotional role in the show. This is Peter's story, after all.
"I have to bring to it an honesty, a kind of deep connection," he says. "It needs to be touching and moving. Boy has these beautiful emotional moments."
For me, what I remember most about the show is that emotional clarity — along with that ingenious use of rope.
If this national tour is the caliber of the New York productions, "Peter" is well worth a drive to San Francisco.
Details: "Peter and the Starcatcher," Nov. 5-Dec. 1, Curran Theatre, 445 Geary St., San Francisco. shnsf.com, (888) 746-1799. $40-$160.
ART NEWS: Closer to home, word comes that Artists' Repertory Theatre — which since 2006 has brought innovative theater to Fresno — has its first ever artistic director. Daniel Chavez Jr., whose name has become synonymous in Fresno with the "sweet transvestite" role of Dr. Frank 'N' Furter in "The Rocky Horror Show, Live!" at the Severance Theatre, has assumed the post officially.
Chavez, who grew up in Dinuba, returned to Fresno after a theater career that included an Italian tour of "West Side Story" and a national tour of "Kiss Me Kate."
Along with his Frank 'N' Furter role in "Rocky," he's been known through the years as teacher and director to legions of child actors going through youth theater programs at Cynthia Merrill's performing arts school, and then later, the California Arts Academy, where he's settled in for a long run.
Artists' Repertory Theatre, founded as a collective, is under the umbrella of the academy. It's had a varied output since its 2006 founding, some years presenting a full season, others just putting on a show for the Rogue Festival.
Highlights have included productions of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" in 2006, "Glengarry Glen Ross" in 2008, "Rabbit Hole" in 2009 and "The Fantasticks" in 2009.
Recently, "Rocky," which has returned this season for its fourth incarnation in five years, has become the highest-profile title for the company, along with an annual Rogue show.
Chavez says he went to ART founders Chris Campbell and Julie Ann Keller, for whom he works at California Arts Academy, and basically said: "You have a theater company. I've always wanted to run a theater company. How about if I give it a shot?"
They said sure.
"We're hoping to provide Fresno with very good, very high-quality theater," he says.
Next year's season will feature Keller directing two one-act plays (William Saroyan's "Hello Out There" and Thornton Davidson's "Stirring Stu"), the musical "Oliver" and the classic drama "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" along with "Rocky" in the fall.
Local theater companies often ebb and flow in terms of output. It's nice to learn that ART is ramping up its season.
BILLBOARD EXPOSURE: Some artists get their work displayed in galleries or museums. Arturo Rios Mercado of Fresno can see his on billboards in Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, Austin, San Antonio, Dallas and Houston.
Rios' drawing of an Aztec warrior won a national Indio beer contest in which artists were asked to explore the theme "Make It Yours." He headed to Los Angeles recently to see his winning entry in person.
He won $5,000, which will buy a lot of beer.
The columnist can be reached at (559) 441-6373, firstname.lastname@example.org and @donaldbeearts on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.