X marks the theatrical stage

  • by Richard Dodds
  • Wednesday May 4, 2016
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Stephen Epps as the pirate Long John Silver and John<br>Babbo as a young cabin boy head off to discover buried riches in a new<br>adaptation of <i>Treasure Island</i> at Berkeley<br>Rep. Photo: Kevin Berne
Stephen Epps as the pirate Long John Silver and John
Babbo as a young cabin boy head off to discover buried riches in a new
adaptation of Treasure Island at Berkeley
Rep. Photo: Kevin Berne

Even if you've never read Treasure Island, it probably feels like you did. The whole notion of a peg-legged pirate with a parrot on his shoulder comes from the Robert Louis Stevenson novel, and even the sea chantey "Yo, Ho, Ho and a Bottle of Rum" originated in the 1883 adventure tale. In the more than 50 screen versions, Mr. Magoo and the Muppets have been to Treasure Island, and Disney once sent the characters to Treasure Planet. But director Mary Zimmerman's stage adaptation pulls the elaborate plot from the mists of memory with a surprisingly faithful and literal rendering now at Berkeley Rep.

Zimmerman largely lets the novel do the storytelling, and since its original format was as a serialized tale with ongoing cliffhangers, the material has long proven its dramatic adaptability. But putting it on the stage rather than the screen requires either an elaborate technical investment or a high degree of theatrical imagination. Zimmerman has rewardingly followed the latter course in other adaptations seen at Berkeley Rep including The Arabian Nights, The Notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci, Argonautika, and Metamorphoses .

But by her admission, Zimmerman has designed Treasure Island to fall somewhere between the theatrical possibilities of her trademark stage magic and a scene-by-scene reenactment. Because the rewards of her usual interpretations have been so high, it may feel a bit of a letdown that they go largely unused in Treasure Island. The production is still a quality affair and often engrossing as the storyline is either introduced to theatergoers or rekindled from their memories.

It's an X-marks-the-spot story, as a mismatched collection of Englishmen comes across a treasure map, hire a schooner, and head off for an island that Stevenson never geographically situates. The low-end nobleman who bankrolls the mission is something of a dunderhead, and when he hires the unsavory Long John Silver to gather up a crew, the levelheaded captain is full of warnings that go unheeded. Mutiny, murder, and subterfuge are the results, and because the serialized story was originally published in a children's adventure magazine, the real hero turns out to be the 15-year-old cabin boy.

Young Jim Hawkins is a mighty role, filled with elaborate speeches and physical clamoring, and John Babbo, in his mid-teens, is almost unnervingly assured in his performance. He was part of Chicago's Lookingglass Theatre Company's 2015 debut of Treasure Island, as were others in this co-production with Berkeley Rep. The most welcome newcomer to the cast is Steven Epps, a Berkeley Rep favorite for his comedic turns often in irreverent stagings of Moliere plays. Epps plays Long John Silver as a flamboyantly cunning and unpredictably comic character with enough moral ambiguity that young Jim is both drawn to and in fear of him.

Where the production begins to fade is in the second act where the cycles of battles and rapprochement with the pirates become repetitive, and some decisive battle begins to feel always just around the next corner. There are also challenges for the audience to figure out where particular scenes are located, even if the characters do announce them. The unit set of a tall-masted schooner by designer Todd Rosenthal is impressively massive, and can even swing like a multi-ton hammock in rough waters, but it also serves as numerous other locales with only symbolic efforts at suggesting off-board the boat.

In addition to Babbo and Epps, the cast is impressively cast in the other leading roles: Matt DeCaro as the foolish squire who heads the mission, Alex Moggridge as the empathetic doctor, Steve Pickering as an addled marooned sailor, and Demetrios Troy as a crew member of unclear loyalties.

This latest adaptation of Treasure Island is a sturdy affair, filled with comedy, drama, and action. But you can tell the audience is craving something more from Zimmerman, as when little squares of shiny gold confetti fall from the rafters to suggest a treasure finally found. There were oohs and ahhs from the audience for an effect that would be unremarkable in another Zimmerman production. The director shouldn't have to stylistically repeat herself, but her Treasure Island comes up just a few doubloons short of a bounty.


Treasure Island will run through June 5 at Berkeley Rep. Tickets are $22.50-$92. Call (510) 647-2949 or go to berkeleyrep.org.