Talking Pictures: Reimagining

Actor-director David Yen on bringing new life to old favorites

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Jeff Wiesen as Captain Hook and David Yen as Smee in Mountain Play's 'Peter Pan.' Photo by Ed Smith

by David Templeton

Who is Batman’s sidekick?” asks actor-director David Yen, reading aloud from an “electronic waiter” thingamajig perched on the table at Applebee’s. That’s where we’ve landed after catching a screening of Mad Max: Fury Road, but before we can get our conversation started, Yen has been bemusedly distracted by the iPad-like device that Applebee’s now employs to keep its patrons entertained by trivia questions and games. What amuses Yen most is not the Batman question but the four bird-themed, multiple-choice answers suggested by the machine. Only one of them is Robin.

“Sparrow!” Yen exclaims. “Batman’s sidekick was definitely … Sparrow! Wow! That’s really kind of dumb.”

With that, he turns the thingamabob face-down, we briefly ponder the culinary curiosity of something on the menu called “Churro S’mores,” and finally turn our conversation to Mad Max: Fury Road, a rollicking, action-packed crowd-pleaser of a film that’s partly a sequel to the three Mel Gibson films of the 1980s, and partly a re-energized reboot of the entire franchise, with Tom Hardy now stepping into the leather boots of the iconic post-apocalyptic road warrior.

With almost non-stop excitement and some of the most entertainingly over-the-top stunts and action sequences ever put on film, Fury Road is the definition of a big summer blockbuster.

Yen, being an established company member of Marin County’s annual Mountain Play production, knows a thing or two about really big shows. Taking place annually atop Mt. Tamalpais at the massive 3,000-seat Cushing Memorial Amphitheatre, the Mountain Play is without question the biggest indoor-or-outdoor theatrical endeavor in the Bay Area. This year, the Mountain Play is staging the indelible musical adventure Peter Pan, with a visually inventive approach to the timeless story that, according to Yen—who plays Smee, the affable henchman to the villainous pirate Captain Hook—will be unlike anything a Mountain Play audience has ever seen.

Though Peter Pan has little in common with Mad Max, beyond the fact that both feature extraordinary fantasy worlds full of outrageous characters, swashbuckling action and plenty of danger and excitement, the film got Yen thinking about one unlikely connection between the world of live theater and the recent spate of theatrical reboots.

“I usually have a real hard time with reboots of film series,” he says. “I absolutely despised the new Star Trek movies. Whenever there’s a new superhero reboot or some other new version of an old story, I always think, ‘Is there not enough new material out there that we have to keep doing the same things over and over?’ I know there are good writers out there!”

“Each new rebooted series of movies,” I point out, “seems to reinvent the rules of the story, changing things up and usually trashing what made the original fun to begin with.”

“Exactly!” Yen says. “When I first started seeing previews for this new Mad Max film, I was going, ‘Oh, really? That’s MY Mad Max, and I like him the way I remember him. Don’t you dare mess with my Max!’ But then, after you asked me to see Mad Max with you, I started sort of rethinking my position.

“I do theater,” he continues, “and in a way, isn’t all theater essentially a reboot? I guess world premieres of brand new shows would be the exception, but every time a theater artist takes an existing show and stages it, aren’t they basically rebooting it? A director brings his or her vision to it. They hopefully try to bring something fresh to the show while keeping alive what made it worth doing to begin with. So maybe I can understand all of these movie reboots a little better.”

In Mad Max: Fury Road, the story is picked up by original director George Miller—and what he does is not a reinvention so much as a reinvigoration. Set in another corner of the apocalyptic wasteland established in Mad Max, The Road Warrior and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, this one drops Max—still a man of very few words—into the clutches of a nightmarish cult overseen by a mutant overlord named Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), against whom he eventually sides with the one-armed warrior Furiosa (Charlize Theron). What follows is essentially the longest chase-sequence in movie history, featuring Max and Furiosa on a jury-rigged gas tanker being pursued across a desert by hundreds of bald, deformed “war boys” in cars and trucks and motorcycles.

“It was a total blast!’ Yen says. “And the best thing is that it wasn’t trying to retell or reinvent the mythology. It was just using a new actor to tell a story that totally fits in with the stories in the other movies.”

In the Peter Pan play that opens on the mountain this weekend, there isn’t nearly the same kind of tinkering, but Yen says that the style of the production will be different than others, starting with director Michael Schwartz’s inspiration to capture the essence of how J.M. Barrie came up with the idea of Peter Pan in the first place.

“It’s pretty unique,” Yen says. “Michael said, ‘Let’s just go back to the lake where J.M. Barrie went with the boys he made up these adventures for.’ There are things you can do in a small theater—things like blackouts—that you can’t do on the mountain at two in the afternoon, so Michael has envisioned this Peter Pan as taking place at a camp in the Adirondacks, with the story popping to life in the imagination as the characters basically build Neverland out of ladders and crazy stuff all around them. It’s all about play and creativity and the limitlessness of the imagination. It’s very, very cool, and very much based in the art of making-believe.”

There are some surprises in the show so big that Yen elects to keep quiet about them.

“They are, after all, ‘surprises,” he says.

We talk for a while about other “alternative visions” brought to classic shows, and how many favorites, especially Shakespeare plays, often are set in post-apocalyptic, Road Warrior-style worlds.

“I even heard of a production of The Pirates of Penzance set in a post-apocalyptic world,” I tell Yen, who responds to this idea with mock, open-mouthed silence, before simply shaking his head.

“Well, I suppose someone could try to do a post-apocalyptic Peter Pan some day,” he says with a laugh, “but this one definitely isn’t that. It’s not a ‘reboot,’ so much as it’s a reimagining. The story’s still there. The songs are all there. And Peter definitely still flies.”

“But there are no mutant gas-pirates on motorcycles?” I ask.

“Definitely not,” Yen says with a laugh. “But … we do have pirates. Lots of pirates!”

But none, we can hope, named Jack Sparrow. Who, come to think of it, would make a great sidekick for Batman.

Anything is possible.

Ask David if he’s ever been to Neverland at talkpix@earthlink.net.

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