From the Novel by Robert Louis Stevenson
Produced by Lookingglass Theatre Company, Chicago
A Co-Production with Berkeley Repertory Theatre
No Need for Digging with This Treasure
Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1881 adventure novel, has long been cheered by educators as one of the best means of convincing children, and particularly boys, to read for pleasure. Mary Zimmerman’s new adaptation for the stage, now in its world premiere at Lookingglass, could provide the same inducement to go to the theatre. Partly that’s because Zimmerman, who is famous for the creative energy she pours into adaptations, has stuck with Stevenson’s text for the most part quite faithfully, and concentrated on balancing between narration and action. Another advantage working in Treasure Island’s favor is the terrific ensemble she has assembled, not the least of whom is John Babbo, an immensely talented young teenager playing the main character, Jim Hawkins. Add Lookingglass’s famed acrobatics and a top design team, and the result is a highly theatrical adventure. But the true strength of Treasure Island is not only its swashbuckling action, but that its convoluted nineteenth century novel-style plot is driven by Jim’s education in craftiness and alliances of convenience.
The story begins in mid-eighteenth century Bristol, where Jim Hawkins lives with his recently widowed mother (Kasey Foster) and helps to run an inn for seafarers. One day, a shady character we later learn is named Billy Bones (Christopher Donahue) takes up residence, and orders Jim to inform him if any other seadogs, and particularly one with a peg-leg, come looking for him. The increasingly unhinged characters who turn up at the inn is the part of the novel that I have recalled the most vividly since reading it as a child, and sure enough, ensemble members Steve Pickering and Anthony Irons soon make brief, but memorable, appearances as the pirates Black Dog and Pew. Billy Bones, it seems, has something his old acquaintances very much want, and it concerns them not a bit if Jim and his mother get caught in the crossfire. When they deliver to Billy a message of his impending demise, he becomes so enraged he dies on the spot, and the Hawkins have a brief moment to conduct their own search of his possessions. They find a map to buried treasure on an island, and Jim brings it to his friend Dr. Livesey (Andrew White).
Dr. Livesey shows it to the aristocratic Squire Trelawney (Matt Decaro), who is so excited by the prospect of treasure, he commissions an expedition to the island. He hires the one-legged Long John Silver (Lawrence E. Distasi) to serve as cook, who so charms him, he delegates to Long John the task of selecting most of the remaining crew, except the captain, Smollett (Philip R. Smith), the doctor, and the cabinboy, Jim. Not long after the ship is underway, Smollett announces that he is not at all pleased with Long John’s choices. Jim and the squire, who have also taking a liking to Long John, are rather upset by this, but one night, when they are nearly at their destination, Jim overhears Long John conspiring with other crewmen to stage a mutiny. The treasure, it turns out, was amassed by the late pirate Marcus Flint, and Billy Bones, Long John Silver, and most of the men Long John selected served under him. Long John is also making progress winning over the remainder of the crew, and although he would prefer to delay the mutiny until after Smollett charts their course home, the other pirates are barely content to wait until they reach the island. Jim slips quietly away just in time for the landing, setting off a series of complications as the rivals vie for the treasure, control of the ship, and their survival.
John Babbo has the spirit of an adventurer. He springs out eagerly at the beginning of the play, joins the men in their rollicking clambering over the set, and always has the right level of energy for the moment, which is remarkable, given the length of the show. Babbo’s narration is clear, but exciting, and he channels Jim’s matter-of-fact style admirably. Lawrence Distasi, of The Actors Gymnasium Circus, is fascinating as the other famous figure, Long John Silver, here a sinewy, honey-voiced, seductive schemer who is more graceful hoisting himself through the rigging than lurching along on his wooden leg (Distasi is very consistent in his physicality). While most of the pirates are cartoonishly evil, Long John is amoral, and so charismatic, the audience joins celebrating his successes. Matt Decaro plays Squire Trelawney as a jovial boor, and White and Smith, as Dr. Livesey and Captain Smollett, are humorously arrogant and deadpan, but prevent the story from being quite so black and white.
Scenic designer Todd Rosenthal has set the play on the schooner Hispaniola, which is a bold choice, since most of the story does not take place on it, and questions about the ship’s location inform several plot points. It is not a bad idea, though, because the wooden boards can easily be imagined as whatever they need to be, and giving the actors the ability to roll the set is worth sacrificing the verisimilitude of other scenes. There are three rousing sea shanties, during which the actors dash from side to side of the rolling ship, which are the best demonstration of how theatrical techniques can make a distinctive contribution to the Treasure Island story. Ana Kuzmanic’s costumes provide the play with its authenticity, as well as its color. Stevenson’s book is notably heavy on dialogue, much of which Zimmerman has included, and listening to the actors’ dialects is another one of the pleasures of the fantasy pirate experience.
While it’s not really necessary for enjoying it, one could see some deeper themes at work in this story. For a blackbox show, Treasure Island contains its fair share of spectacle. But the most affecting moment is one of the show’s quietist. Jim is trapped on the schooner with treacherous coxswain Israel Hands (Ariel Shafir), who is wounded, but still dangerous. They exchange conversation and fight, and Jim reaches turning point in his character that Zimmerman makes into a much more significant moment than Stevenson did. In the way she has made the squire less of an admirable character, it may be Zimmerman wanted to acknowledge the grittiness bubbling beneath the story’s surface. The amorphous legal difference between piracy and privateering and the legalistic atrocities of the British government in the eighteenth century are, after all, part of what won pirates in this era a pleasant spot in the popular imagination. In any case, Treasure Island survives in the hearts of many generations, not just because of its plot, but the bond readers share with its characters. This version is no different, and is an excellent opportunity for new and younger theatre-goers to get caught up in a story.
Reviewed October 17, 2015
This show has been Jeff recommended.
For more information, see Treasure Island’s page on Theatre in Chicago.
Playing at Lookingglass Theatre in the Water Tower Water Works, 821 N. Michigan Avenue, Chicago. Tickets are $55-85 with discounts for groups and students; to order, call 312-337-0665 or visit lookingglasstheatre.org. Runs through January 31, 2016. Running time is two hours and thirty minutes, with one intermission.