Treasure Island

Mary Zimmerman sets sail with Robert Louis Stevenson.

The cast of Treasure Island, adapted and directed by Mary Zimmerman, at Lookingglass Theatre Company.
The cast of Treasure Island, adapted and directed by Mary Zimmerman, at Lookingglass Theatre Company.
(© Liz Lauren)

As a Tony winner and the recipient of a MacArthur "Genius" grant, Mary Zimmerman brings an inarguable cachet to her work. Like earlier works that Zimmerman both adapted and directed (The Jungle Book, Metamorphoses), Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island is visually sumptuous and packed with dialogue that is alternately playful and philosophical. This coproduction between Lookingglass and Berkeley Repertory Theatre reveals an exotic landscape of pirates, castaways, and fatherless waifs on the adventure of a lifetime.

Stevenson's coming-of-age-with-pirates romp follows the adventures of young Matthew Hawkins (John Francis Babbo) and his quest for buried treasure. His potentially deadly rival in the race for the gold is Long John Silver (Lawrence DiStasi) and Silver's band of seafaring cutthroats. The 18th-century tale begins in an English town where Hawkins and his mother run an inn. Chaos descends on their workaday world with the arrival of a mysterious, noisy sot called Billy Bones (Christopher Donahue). Billy's only luggage is a lockbox that he guards with dragon-like ferocity, despite his penchant for drunken carousing.

The downfall of Billy Bones is as garbled and unclear as his drinking songs, although it's clear that crew of villains who initiate it are a vividly nefarious bunch. Among them are Black Dog (Steve Pickering, embodying cruelty so complete it'll give you nightmares) and Blind Pew (Anthony Irons, as bent as a crab and as terrifying as a drowned man), a dastardly duo of soulless blackguards that'll send shivers down your spine.

If you haven't read the book, the connection between Black Dog, Hawkins, Billy Bones' belongings, and the preening Squire Trelawney (Matthew DeCaro) is apt to leave you baffled. There's no time to puzzle it out, because soon enough the Squire, his doctor (Andrew White), and Hawkins are at sea in search of an island where buried treasure awaits.

It's aboard the good ship Hispaniola that Treasure Island fully sets sail. Under the command of Captain Smollett (Philip R. Smith), the ship is manned by a crew that includes Long John Silver — the prototype of all pop culture pirates to follow — posing as a good-natured cook while plotting a deadly mutiny. Before the voyage is over, young Hawkins will have killed a man, saved a castaway, and come within a whisker of being betrayed by a garrulous parrot.

Zimmerman's cast bursts with energy and commitment. Donahue is haunting as Billy Bones, his boisterous revels cut through with the unmistakable sorrow of somebody who has survived both horrors and wonders. DiStasi's sinewy, athleticism serves him well as the one-legged pirate who is as tough to play emotionally as he is physically. Long John Silver is responsible for just about every pirate cliché in existence, from the parrot-on-the-shoulder, to constant refrains of "aarrghh matey." DiStasi embraces the tropes while making Long John Silver a character of credible depth. He's dastardly to the bone, but he's also terrific fun to watch. Smith is an absolute joy as the buttoned-up Captain Smollet, a proper Englishman whose sense of decorum remains unflinching under the most extreme duress. DeCaro's Squire Trelawney manages to be both insufferable and genuinely likable as a chap who insists upon sporting ridiculously fussy breeches and frock coats even while stranded on a desert island.

The heart of Treasure Island lies in Babbo's Jim Hawkins. Babbo is in his early teens, but he's been acting most of his life. He steps into the lead with the poise of someone twice his age, bringing the right mix of vulnerability and moxie to Hawkins.

Zimmerman's use of music throughout the production is marvelous. Several of the ensemble members (Greg Hirte, L.J. Slavin, Matthew C. Yee, Kasey Foster) double as a micro-orchestra, with strings and woodwinds evoking the rhythm of waves. Ana Kuzmanic's detailed costumes are spot-on, from bedraggled tatters of Billy Bones to the peacock flourishes of Squire Trelawney. T.J. Gerckens' lighting colors the stage with painterly beauty, whether the action is unfolding under a mercilessly blazing desert isle sun or in the murky wee hours at sea.

Daniel Ostling's innovative set design for the Hispaniola fills the stage with a mighty structure of thick ropes and weathered wood ingeniously rigged to swing back and forth in mimicry of a ship's motion. But like the plot, the set falters when the characters are ashore. The titular island is indicated by a few fronds of plastic plants that look like Party City tiki decor. The interior sites that play crucial parts in Hawkins' early adventures look equally false and sparse.

As gorgeous as much of Treasure Island is to look at, it isn't a piece you'll fully lose yourself in. The second act of Zimmerman's two-hour (plus intermission) adaptation feels bloated and repetitive. Whenever the story moves to dry land, the plot particulars of who is doing what to whom (and why) becomes confusing.

Treasure Island leaves you feeling as if the show still needs refining. Though the bones of a fantastic production are there, Zimmerman doesn't quite deliver something to fully treasure.

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Treasure Island

Closed: January 31, 2016