He’s Black Stache, a pirate captain with a huge black mustache he’s had since he was 10.
And Michael Doherty, the actor who plays in him Delaware Theatre Co.’s “Peter and The Starcatcher,” has the merriest time cracking up the audience as the play’s vainglorious villain they can’t get enough of.
“I love how unapologetic he is,” said Doherty. “There’s something about playing a villain and playing someone who says and does despicable things that is incredibly liberating, because it’s so far from my existence.”
He prances and preens, wiggles and waggles, looms and leers in a role he says harks back to older theater traditions.
“There’s a lot of vaudeville, British Music Hall and British Panto references to it,” says Doherty. “There’s something about those older styles that kind of lends themselves to a more, you know, presentational style.”
Vaudeville, British music hall and British pantomime all involved presenting a mix of songs, speciality acts and comedy, often bawdy and often breaking the fourth wall to speak and react to the audience.
“Starcatcher,” he said, “feels at times more akin to stand up comedy than your typical live theatrical performance where the fourth wall is very much intact.”
He’s able to throw in ad libs here and there and said he delights in trying to throw the actor playing Peter off track with a few of them.
“When you see in a script that a character is licensed to break the fourth wall, or improvise, it gives the actor a lot of power and it’s this rare and very generous thing that I think a playwright can do for an actor. It’s such a gift,” Doherty said. “You’re not getting in the way by sort of going for it and putting your all into it. It’s what the piece wants.”
Becoming Peter, the play
The play by Rick Elice is based on the novel of the same name by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson. It’s a prequel to “Peter Pan,” the beloved musical that told the story of the boy who didn’t want to grow up.
Delaware Theater executive director Matt Silva said he chose “Peter and the Starcatcher,” which runs through Dec. 24, as the holiday show because he thought it would delight audiences, create a sense of community and appeal to a wide range of people.
“It’s show that I think has heart and at the roots of the show, it’s really about this childlike wonderment and a sense of play,” Silva said. “We all have that, whether we lose some of it, but we’re reminded of that and so I think it’s something special for the holidays.”
In just the first week, he said, they’ve seen patrons as young as four and as old as 94.
While the show stars Gabriel W. Elmore as the boy with no name, Amanda Jill Robinson as Molly Aster and Doherty, it’s largely an ensemble piece with actors assuming several roles, including the doors and walls of two ocean-going ships. They provide soundscapes, repeat jokes and quick costume changes.
Doherty often plays in the background of the ensemble, just another sailor rolling a cigarette and stomping it out, before his star turn.
A villain with deep feelings
Playing Black Stache was a natural stretch for a guy who describes himself as “indeed an extrovert.”
“I do love making people laugh,” Doherty said, immediately adding that he couldn’t do what he does without the ensemble.
“It’s like kids playing,” he said. “It’s like a giant sandbox. And when you get really smart, fun, clever collaborative actors in that environment and someone like Matt, who gives permission to just go for it, it’s sheer delight. It is definitely one of those lightning in a bottle moments where the script’s excellence is matched by the excellence of the ensemble.”
Doherty, who attended the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, has played Black Stache once before, more than a decade ago. He and his wife, actress and director Alex Keiper, lived in Philly for decades before decamping to New York City during the pandemic.
“I came out of college doing a lot of sketch comedy, so working an audience and feeling out a crowd and riding laughs is my favorite thing to do,” he said.
Doherty saw Christian Borle play Black Stache in the original 2012 production of “Peter and the Starcatcher” in 2012. Borle won an Emmy for it.
“It really stuck with me,” Doherty said. “What I really took away from that was was his 1,000% commitment to the role. There’s so much he brought to that role.”
Doherty finds he’s often cast in comic roles, including a lot of physical comedy roles.
It’s not because of a lack of skill, he said.
“I think good dramatic actors find their way into comedy because they understand what it means to feel deeply,” he said. “When we do things like this that have great size and scale, I think it’s super important that it is felt deeply, like from the depths of our soul. Otherwise, it is hollow.”
If you go
“Peter and the Starcatcher” plays at Delaware Theater Co., 200 Water St., Wilmington, through Christmas Eve. Tickets range from $25 for students through $70 for premium seats. Buy online or call the box office at 302-594-1100.
Betsy Price is a Wilmington freelance writer who has 40 years of experience.
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