Someone is singing a sea chantey as the deck slowly rocks beneath the sailors’ feet. A properly-brought-up young English lad lad gazes in wonderment at the strange sights — a parrot perched on a pirate’s shoulder, palm trees swaying in the wind, a skeleton swinging suddenly down from a tree and pieces of eight. Oh, more pieces of eight than you can imagine matey, once you find them, that is.
The true treasure of Berkeley Rep’s new “Treasure Island,” Robert Louis Stevenson’s timeless tale of adventure and treachery on the high seas, is superstar-director Mary Zimmerman’s concept, adaptation and staging. Helmed by a terrific cast of pirates and adventurers, it moves swiftly through the streets of London and Bristol to a faraway island where all hell breaks loose as pirates (the bad guys) and a small group of English gentlemen (good guys) race to find a buried treasure. It’s wonderfully staged and just scary enough and funny enough to keep you engaged for its two-and-a-half hour running time.
This is a story that has fascinated little boys (and, truth to tell, little girls) since it first came out nearly 100 years ago. Zimmerman’s take on it should do much to bring a whole new generation to its pages in addition to making the rest of us feel, however briefly, young again.
Heading up the cast is busy young Chicago actor John Babbo as Jim Hawkins, the lad who is drawn into an adventure beyond his wildest dreams when a deadbeat old salt (Christopher Donahue as the obnoxious Billy Bones) drops dead in his mother’s boarding house, leaving behind a map that leads to a storied treasure trove. With the aid of the generous and adventurous local Squire (Matt DeCaro) and a kindly doctor (Alex Moggridge), a ship is fitted out and sails from Bristol. Problem is: the crew consists of pirates, also greedy for gold, and headed up by the smarmy and ruthless Long John Silver, played to a fare-thee-well by the rubber-faced Steven Epp who is as funny as he is menacing.
The other members of the large ensemble are terrific as well: Steve Pickering as a castaway who dreams of English cheese, Kasey Foster as Jim’s lovely widowed mother, Philip R. Smith as the brave, rule-following captain of the “Hispaniola” plus more. Greg Hirte, L.J. Savin and Matthew C. Yee provide incidental music with Foster on vocals (original music plus sound design by Andre Pluess). No choreographer is credited but the movement is cleverly plotted out, especially a mutiny in slo-mo. Todd Rosenthal designed the massive ship that dominates the stage as well as the plot and Ana Kuzmanic conceived the rags for the pirates and silks for the gentlemen..
“Treasure Island” is not just for kids. It’s for all of us who have ever dreamed of adventure and got more than we wished for. Set sail.