PORTRAIT PHOTO BY TINA GARCEAU | STAGE PHOTOS PROVIDED BY Mark Garvin
When acquiring his master’s degree through the Yale School of Drama, David Bardeen received much reinforcement for his acting endeavors, including encouragement to “Let the bear out.” The 44-year-old has used that ursine urge to great effect as an area performer and is using the cuddly connotations of that figure of speech-laced advice to play Alf, “a gruff sailor with a heart of gold,” in the Walnut Street Theatre’s Philadelphia premiere of “Peter and The Starcatcher.”
“It’s such a terrific show about the negotiation of discovering one’s uniqueness,” the former Queen Village occupant said of the Tony Award-winning adventure that serves as “a grown-up’s prequel to ‘Peter Pan,’” as a theatrical release states. “It’s about storytelling, magic, bravery, shipwrecks, pirates, and friendship. Needless to say, it ain’t boring.”
The thankful thespian and the South Philly-heavy cast are addressing the origins of the boy-who-wouldn’t-grow-up through May 1, taking on more than 100 characters for director Bill Van Horn, another regular local contributor to WST’s 207-year legacy. Though Bardeen has other tasks, his role as Alf resonates as his main means to let levity reign.
“He has a hard exterior but a soft heart,” the actor said. “This is a very comic and heartwarming opportunity for me, and I’m absolutely loving it.”
He and the other hires have gained renown as brilliant presenters of captivating material, with their familiarity leading to enviable emphasis on tirelessly executing their lines and movements. With Barrymore Award winners galore, Bardeen included, the product, which opened last night, promises to be a reflection of regard for the talent of others and not a competition for kudos.
“There are some really heavy hitters in this show,” he said of his fifth WST assignment. “However, there are no egos here because we all want to convey a compelling plot. Our knowledge of one another provides a shorthand that can smooth out any problem, and we’re all excited to be handling something that calls us to realize how we’re all special and necessary in helping the world to go round.”
With more than five weeks left to tighten their bonds, the stoked stage presences are certainly helping the presenting entity to strengthen its reputation as the most subscribed-to theater company in the world. Bardeen also revels in the work’s identity as an ensemble-driven piece, confessing that he thrives in such offerings because of their intense concentration on unity and cohesion.
“I love supporting roles so much,” he said of his current enterprise and its predecessors. “At this point in my journey, too, where I’m really noticing a strengthening of the acting community, jobs like this really delight me. I guess you could say it makes me feel like Peter Pan because it’s all about being focused on fun and support of what’s good, right, and fair.”
Bardeen experienced a geographically interesting childhood, with multiple locations helping to encourage his artistic curiosity. His family settled in the area when he was 13, with the budding lover of lines forging a connection with the Main Line and its environs. Through summer opportunities, he took to theater early on, with “the first applause” eventually silencing all other potential vocations.
“It was a way to express myself and a way, maybe, even to cope with change,” Bardeen said with a laugh, reflecting on how his father’s employment often necessitated moves. “I liked taking on different challenges and though I didn’t envision this as a career, I wanted to grow and learn.”
Having lived in The Nutmeg State for a spell, he returned to New England to attend Connecticut College. Having thought he might end up becoming a lawyer or even an English teacher à la Robin Williams in “Dead Poets Society,” he soon sided with the somewhat nomadic life of a theater professional and commenced his Philadelphia career with considerable curiosity.
“This town has been very good to me,” Bardeen said, noting how his affiliation with the Walnut Street Theatre helped him to secure the Independence Foundation Fellowship, an endowment that led to time in Indonesia, where he trained with masters of mask work, puppetry, and Balinese dance. “I’m lucky to be a part of such a creative, caring, and compassionate community that really values what can come from having and believing in an idea.”
Eager to stir “a little revolution” inside himself, he went to graduate school to build his skill set, picking up the aforementioned suggestion about letting out more passion and the redeeming “You are enough” mantra, among other compelling points. Los Angeles proved a siren for a bit, but, growing increasingly tired of the grind, Bardeen, having secured credits yet no sense of artistic fulfillment, returned to Philadelphia and has found himself amazed to interact with “the huge influx of talent” present here.
“The community is so tight, and you’re not going to last long here if you’re an absolute jerk because we’ll sniff you out right away,” he chuckled. “You can really grow here, and I look forward to every opportunity, especially with ‘Starcatcher’ because it’s such a wonderful story.”
Acquiring that satisfaction here that California could not provide, Bardeen, who also noted he at one point ages ago found himself a heartbeat away from moving to New York, is enjoying life in Northeast Philly and anticipates fraternizing with his contemporaries on projects where levity is lord and pride a peasant.
“We’re putting on a show that incorporates the concept of magic,” Bardeen said, “yet each time I hear of a new show in Philadelphia, I remind myself that that sort of magic is the most enduring kind because it’s rooted in making us better people.” ■
Call 215-574-3550, or visit walnutstreettheatre.org.
Contact Editor Joseph Myers at email@example.com or ext. 124.