Monday, May 2, 2016

"Treasure Island"

Treasure Island
Adapted by Mary Zimmerman
From the Novel by Robert Louis Stevenson

Demetrios Troy as Israel Hands & John Babbo as Jim Hawkins
Bouncing balls as cannon shot, a wooden box pulled on a rope as a boat crossing the sea, and cut branches to dodge as trees in a thick jungle.  Gnarly pirates full of “Arrrrgh,” wild chases and fierce sword fights, plenty of good and bad guys and some in between, and, of course,  the required wrinkled map with a big “X” to mark where lies buried the treasure.  Elements of any little boy’s dream afternoon with his pals in the backyard or just a few of the many ingredients all adding up to a spectacular, staged retelling of one of the greatest adventure stories ever written?  The answer is ‘yes’ and ‘yes’ as Berkeley Repertory Theatre, in conjunction with Chicago’s Lookinglass Theatre Company, presents Mary Zimmerman’s latest adaptation of a literary classic for live theatre – This time, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.  Told through the wonder-filled eyes of a twelve-year-old-boy of eighteenth century England, this spectacular production never lets us forget that Treasure Island is a kid’s story through and through but also one that brings out the oft-forgotten child in all of us as we recall the days when daring adventure, fearless bravery, and good conquering evil were all at our imagination’s fingertips.

For those a little rusty on the basic storyline  many read long years past, recall that young Jim Hawkins lives in Black Cove, England, helping his mom run the Admiral Benbow Inn. There, they find themselves lodging a seedy, drunken sailor, Billy Bones, who arrives with a small wooden box he harbors close to his coughing chest.  It turns out that Billy is being pursued by a band of pirates, all past crew of the infamous Cap’n Flynt, who is said to have left a ship’s full of gold buried somewhere on a lost island.  Billy confines all this to Young Jim, who manages with his mother to steal away just before the pirates invade the Inn, taking with them the box and its hidden map to the treasured island.  After delivering the map to the town’s powder-wigged, fastidious Squire Trelawney and rather tight-laced Dr. Livesey, Jim becomes a hero of sorts and is offered any boy’s dream job as Cabin Boy aboard a hastily put together seafaring venture by the Squire to go find the gold.  The problem is, the giddy, gregarious Squire cannot keep his big mouth shut about the journey’s destination or purpose, soon attracting a peg-legged, scar-faced seaman with gold earring and green parrot all too willing to find the too-grateful Squire his ship’s crew.  By now, we all have figured out the sudden savior is none other than the infamous Long John Silver.  And, anyone with even only a passing knowledge of Stevenson’s original story or any of the scores of later spawned versions knows that high sea adventure, on- (and over-) board mutiny, and South Sea island disasters and discoveries are all in store for Jim Hawkins, now full of boyhood bravery and just the right amount of rambunctious recklessness for a heart-pounding adventure story.

John Babbo is a young, teenage actor with an impressive resume that stretches coast-to-coast on stages as well as on the screen; and he brings all that experience to bear in his stellar performance as Jim Hawkins.  With each word meticulously spoken in mid-1700’s English dialect, he tells us, often in conversational tones as if we were sitting together around a dining room table, his recollections.  His occasional interludes of direct audience interaction are moments of endearing innocence, big-eyed wonder, and knitted-brow seriousness.  As the next part of the story’s action overtakes the words of its telling,  we see a boy with wildly beating heart, panting voice, and all-out eagerness to jump into the next fray as he dashes quickly off while still yelling over his shoulder to us about the next scene.  Never do we doubt during the entire production that this is Jim’s story we are seeing, thanks to John Babbo’s maturity as an actor to invite us each to see the adventure of a lifetime through his boyhood eyes.

Steven Epp as Long John Silver with His Pirates
From Jim’s memory bank pours a slew of pesky pirates, each with the trappings and traits from any kid’s favorite, buccaneer book or movie.  Principal among these, of course, is Long John Silver himself, the scoundrelous anti-hero we all cannot help but like just a little bit.  Steven Epp is a L.J. Silver extraordinaire, huffing and hobbling about on his wooden leg, loaded with both sword-ready snarls and smacking-lip smiles at his disposal, according to his quick-changing moods and his sneaky intentions.  His sleazy troupe includes bent-over, blind Pew (Anthony Irons), whose deadly intentions get thwarted by officers’ carriage running over him (cleverly carried out in boys’ playtime style) and Black Dog (Steve Pickering), a deadly-serious scourge with a dirty top hat covering his mostly bald head with a few braided locks falling to the side.  Demetrios Troy is a slick-haired, rather handsome (for a pirate) Israel Hands, who gives Jim a chance to carry out every boy’s hidden desire to kill a pirate (but only because he tries first to murder Jim). 

Dick (Travis Delgado) is a Bible-holding, superstitious pirate who goes half mad from malaria and thefear that using a page of the Bible to imprint the death-dooming “Black Spot” may have in fact doomed him.  He also doubles as the half-crazed, rag-clothed, scraggly-haired Ben Gunn, who has been marooned for three years on Treasure Island and becomes Jim’s friend and fellow hero of the hour.

Jim’s escapade all begins with the appearance of Billy Bones with his face puffed and scarred from his life of sea-born crimes.  Christopher Donahue is the epitome of the pirate any kid tries to be on Halloween with his gravely voice, drink-infested dance and song, and penchant one minute to be a boy’s confidant and the next, maybe the boy’s demise. 

Matt DeCaro as Squire, John Babbo as Jim & Alex Moggridge as the Doctor
The same actor later returns as the stone-faced, no-emotion-shown, loyal-without-question Redruth, servant to Squire Trelawney.  Matt DeCaro -- a Squire whom we shake our heads in laughing disbelief of all his misjudgments of character but eventually come to admire for his newfound bravery -- hilariously portrays the rotund, silly Squire in his coats of satin and too-much bunting.  Alex Moggridge is Dr. Livesay, a doting friend of Jim’s mother, comrade of the Squire’s, and a fellow sea traveler who too finds courage in ways that make heroes out of ordinary men when told through the lens of a twelve-year-old.  Before the Silver-led mutiny, the Hispaniola’s Captain is Smollett, played by the rightly suspicious, English-through-and-through Philip R. Smith.

Cast Members Join in Hearty Song
One of the ongoing joys of this production is the inclusion of both sung and played music.  Kasey Foster (who is also Jim’s properly English mother and a treacherously mean pirate named George Merry), Matthew C. Yee (doubling as the lone loyal seaman Abraham Gray), Greg Hirte, and L.J. Slavin add much atmosphere of the era, the sea, and the life of pirates as well as enhance the drama and sense of danger with their ongoing string and wind music.  They, and at times the entire cast, join in beautifully sung songs of a cappella that further set the tone.

On the Hispaniola
Playing a starring role in this swashbuckling spectacle is the set itself and all that supports it.  A large, suspended stage with ship’s roped ladders climbing from its edges – surrounded on three sides by audience – serves at times as a swaying deck at sea, as multiple English and island locales, and even as a humongous drum to accompany a rapped, cast song.  Todd Rosenthal’s designed magic is enhanced by incredibly mastered lighting by T. J. Gerkens and sound by Andres Pluess – all of which enable fortressed battles, ship’s hold caucuses, jungle escapes, and Bristol street chases to occur with just enough reality to allow imagination to come to life.  In addition, Ana Kuzmanic's costumes sizzle with the colors and creativity as remembered from childhood's favorite books.

Mary Zimmerman, as both script adapter and stage director, has brought the words of much-read pages into a panoramic experience packed with edge-of-seat action, heart-thumping emotion, and even some life lessons about daring to stretch beyond one’s normal, day-to-day boundaries.  Together with the cast and team from Berkeley Repertory Company, she has given each audience member a chance to be a kid in search of tomorrow’s possibilities.

Rating: 5 E

Treasure Island continues in an extended run through June 19 , 2016 on the Main Stage of Peet’s Theatre of Berkeley Repertory Company 2015 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA.  Tickets are available at or by calling 510-647-2975 Tuesday – Sunday, noon – 7 p.m.

Photos by Kevin Berne

No comments:

Post a Comment