It’s nice when a classic work of fiction can make for a successful night of theater. Think The Grapes of Wrath or Elevator Repair Service’s Gatz, their recent re-working of The Great Gatsby at the Public Theater. B.H. Barry and Vernon Morris attempt to do just that with a new adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Barry, the renowned fight choreographer, directs this production at the Irondale Center. And while it channels some of the more detailed, darker elements of the swashbuckling tale, the overall result feels a tad disengaging.
Part of the problem could be that the creative team is too eager to get to the fighting. For those unfamiliar with the tale, there is plenty more going on. Young Jim Hawkins (Noah E. Galvin) sets out on a treasure hunt after discovering a map on the dead body of a drunk seafarer staying at his mother’s boardinghouse. He cobbles together a de facto crew including Squire Trelawney (Kenneth Tigar) and Dr. Livesay (Rocco Sisto).
But if their quest was smooth sailing, there wouldn’t be much of a show, would there? That’s why the treacherous Long John Silver (Tony nominee Tom Hewitt), secretly trying to rally a mutiny, appears. There’s something about Silver – and it isn’t the rum – that Hawkins finds intoxicating, even as he catches on to Silver’s nasty ploy and gets threatened, then eventually kidnapped.
It’s not hard to see why. Hewitt is sensational as Silver, and gives real shape to a role that’s alternately played as benign comic relief or stereotypical villain. He makes Silver downright charming, and commits so fully to the role that we view him as a survivalist who adheres to his own code of honor and necessity. Additionally, Tom Beckett offers memorable turns as both Ben Gunn and Blind Pew. Tigar, too, provides plenty of gray strokes to keep the Squire interesting.
Galvin is the performer who buoys all of Island. His is more than a mere child’s performance – the actor is remarkably present, and he above all others is the one who makes the audience understand why Hawkins keeps asking for more trouble with Silver when he should cut and run.
There’s plenty of talent afoot off-stage, too. Stewart Wagner uses subtle but strong lighting cues to enhance Tony Straiges’s set design. Sound designer Will Pickens’ sound design and Luke Brown’s costumes seem authentic as well.
It is Barry who underserves his cast and crew with misguided choices. For example, Barry is blessed to have the performer Ken Schatz sing sea chanteys to demarcate the chapters of Stevenson’s story. As beautiful and haunting as his voice is, the effect serves to prolong a clunkily-paced production (with many children in the audience, a running time nearly two-and-three-quarters of an hour-long is a mistake. I noticed several children seated across from me sleeping with their heads resting on a parent’s lap or shoulder).
It seems that Barry looks at the text as a conduit to reach his fight sequences, when it should be the other way around. These moments should pepper an already-rich text. Instead, they dilute the rest of the action.
He has made one novel choice, however. Barry has choreographed his actors to paddle themselves around the stage on wheeled platforms to mimic ships at sea. This is resourceful and whimsical. One wishes that the rest of the play could have captured this energy.
Sadly, it must be said that when this journey has come to its end, there is precious little booty to be found.