A new play by MacArthur Fellow and Tony Award-winner Mary Zimmerman is always a reason to celebrate. Her Metamorphosis, Arabian Nights and White Snake have thrilled Berkeley audiences, myself included. These plays represent her sublime ability to take timeless, legendary tales and imbue them with stage magic and emotional resonance. Yet her adaption and direction of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, a co-production of Berkeley Rep and Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre Company, for all of its achievements, never reaches the heights of her most brilliant productions.
Treasure Island (1881-1882) was one of the first adventure stories written for boys, and it’s still a terrific yarn. It’s a coming-of-age story set in the mid-1700s in which young Jim Hawkins, who is also the narrator, (excellent John Babbo) sails on the schooner Hispaniola seeking pirate treasure (X marks the spot). Jim ultimately uses his courage and wits to challenge that most infamous brigand, the amoral yet amiable peg-legged, crutch-toting, parrot-shouldering Long John Silver (great Stephen Epps, Tartuffe, Accidental Death of an Anarchist, The Miser).
In the first act, we meet Jim helping his poor but honest mother run a small inn (mother Kasey Foster sings beautifully and is also convincing as pirate George Merry). When the bedraggled, boorish, boozy sailor Billy Bones (Christopher Donahue, who also shines as Redruth) rents a room at the inn, he pays Jim to warn him about a one-legged sailor, because the sailor craves the treasure map in Billy’s sea chest. But after Billy’s sudden death, Jim, the first to locate the map, shows it to his family physician, Dr. Livesey (Alex Moggridge), who brings it to the local district squire, Trelawney (outstanding Matt DeCaro). Squire Trelawney, agog at the promise of pirate booty, purchases the Hispaniola. With Dr. Livesey, the upright and experienced Captain Smollett (Philip R. Smith), and Jim as cabin boy, they set sail, unwittingly taking on some pirates as crew members, including Long John Silver.
The bit too long and bit too verbose second act brings Jim into the heat of the action as he overhears the pirates’ plans to mutiny and grab the treasure. Jim’s brave and clever act of cutting the lines to the ship turns the tide in the battle between the two warring groups. There are rousing skirmishes, skeletons and deaths before the foreseeable happy resolution. I wished, however, that the subtle relationship between Jim and Long John Silver had been further explored.
Treasure Island looks wonderful. Scenic Designer Todd Rosenthal has trimmed out the stage of the new Peet’s Theatre to represent the Hispaniola, with a slightly upturned wooden floor that actually swings and rocks when the cast moves it. Vertical sailing ropes and ladders are on both sides of the ship, and are hooked to a catwalk above the stage. Ana Kuzmanic’s creative costumes add much color and flavor. Several talented musicians play evocative sea shanties (composed by Andre Pluess) that add ballast to the mood of the production.
All the acting is first-rate. Many of the actors appeared in the Chicago production and are expert in their roles. A minor quibble: a portion of the pirates’ lines were difficult to understand. I know that the new Peet’s Theatre has the world’s greatest sound system, but this is the second performance I’ve seen there and the second one in which I found some dialogue unclear. Perhaps the issue was the Cockney pirate accents.
Treasure Island is a very good show. It’s solid entertainment, with marvelous stagecraft and first-rate acting. But because it is based on a concrete story designed for children, rather than on an allegorical or mythical parable, it doesn’t create the deep emotional connection between the audience and the performance that is Zimmerman’s hallmark.
Treasure Island is playing at Berkeley Rep through June 19. For information, extended dates and tickets, visit Berkeley Rep’s website.
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