Regional Reviews: San Francisco
Swashbuckling pirates on Willows Stage in Treasure Island
Robert Lewis Stevenson wrote this famous tale in 1881 while vacationing with his stepson on the coast of Scotland. The author sketched a map of a "pirate's treasure" for the entertainment of the 12 year old. Stevenson's imagination was sparked, and he imagined a pirate adventure story to go along with the drawing. The result was one of the most read adventure novels of all times.
There have been over 50 film versions of this classic tale. The most famous is the 1934 MGM version starring Wallace Berry as Long John Silver and Jackie Cooper as young Jim Hawkins. Probably the best Long John Silver impersonation was the outlandish camp portrayal by British actor Robert Newton in the Disney film in 1950. No one has ever topped that performance. Orson Wells, Jack Palance and Charlton Heston have also tried their hand at the characterization.
Ara Watson wrote a stage version of the celebrated yarn for the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park in 1991. Since that time, many high school and regional production have been presented in this country. Richard Elliott, artistic director of the Willows, decided to present a full scale production for the current season. As he said, it "brings out the kid in all of us" to see these guys in authentic costumes on massive sets recreating the masterpiece of Robert Lewis Stevenson. Peter Crompton's sets, Chris Guptill's lighting and Loran Watkin's costumes are marvelous. Direction by Richard Elliott is fast and furious once it gets over the slow first scene that occurs in the Admiral Benbow Inn.
Billy Bones (Louis Graham), Black Dog (Tom Flynn) and Blind Pew (Cassidy Brown) take a long long while to establish the story of the lost treasure for "young" Jim Hawkins (Joseph Midyett). The play really takes off with the appearance of enigmatic Long John Silver (Julian Lopez-Morillas), and then we have all of the elements of the novel, including betrayals, battles and mutinies.
Julian Lopez-Morillas plays Long John very straight with very little camping. His antiquated English is excellent. Most of the camping comes in the second act from Cassidy Brown (Meyerhold in The Death of Meyerhold) as Ben Gunn. Dressed in the dirtiest of rags and jumping around like a Mexican jumping bean saying "He says, I says," he constantly sparks up the act. Joseph Midyett seems a bit too old to be playing young Jim, but basically he narrates the story then goes into the action as an adult. The whole cast seems to be having a lot of fun imitating pirates and English gentlemen.
Peter Compton's substantial sets are some of the best I have seen this year. The Admiral Benbow Inn set on the right side of the stage is very detailed. It turns around to become the Bristol Docks. The left side of the stage is a beautifully lighted space, thanks to Chris Guptill's lighting. Two sets come together toward the end of the first act to become the deck of the Hispaniola with sails coming from the sides. These sets are solid with no flats. In the second act, there are sets to represent the island that are amazing.
Treasure Island is like a Disney production; you probably won't be moved by the characters since they are like storybook people. However, it's a fun show full of swordplay, pirates who look like they would not hurt a fly, stiff upper lip British gentlemen and a Long John Silver with a Shakespearian voice on a very attractive colorful stage. You almost feel they are going to break out in songs by Elton John and Tim Rice.
Treasure Island plays through June 6 at the Willows Theatre, 1975 Diamond Blvd. Concord, California. For tickets call 925-798-1300 or visit www.willowstheatre.org.
Their next production is Gypsy, opening on June 21, starring Broadway veteran Mary Bracken.