Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

Treasure Island
Lookingglass Theatre Company
Review by John Olson|

The Cast
Photo by Liz Lauren
Treasure Island is the story that pretty much defined the romantic and comic iconic pirate imagery that has been with us for generations. The title suggests all sorts of wonderful things and has been the name of enterprises from a Las Vegas resort casino to Chicago's chain of upscale specialty food stores.

Director-Adapter Mary Zimmerman has long been associated with stage fantasy and adventure, from her Tony Award-winning Metamorphoses through Lookingglass's The Arabian Nights, The Odyssey, and Argonautika and her more recent The Jungle Book, a co-production of Disney and the Goodman Theatre. On paper, a Mary Zimmerman stage adaptation of Treasure Island sounds ideal. In practice, this production seems to still be stuck on paper. Some nice looking costumes and a cool parrot puppet notwithstanding, what Zimmerman has come up with here is a talky, largely static version of the Robert Louis Stevenson adventure novel that never soars.

Talky plays aren't necessarily a bad thing, but when combined with Stevenson's late 19th-century British language and hard-to-decipher English dialects, it's a chore just to listen to and to try to follow what the actors are telling us. Zimmerman's adaptation follows the novel's device of the young hero Jim Hawkins providing narration. Fair enough, but there's just too much direct address here—much too much showing, and not telling. This is deadly for such a plot-heavy story, as I guess adventures ought to be—filled with surprises, cliff-hangers and the like. Here, there's really only one brief suspenseful moment in the show, late in the second act when young Jim fights the pirate Hands to the death.

It's a good-looking production, to be sure. Ana Kuzmanic's earth-tone costumes feel authentic. The set by Todd Rosenthal is a huge swinging platform sometimes meant to represent the ship. In those moments, such as the scene in which the platform rocks as if the ship is traversing the waves and the sailors run back and forth from port to starboard, the scenic concept is effective. When we're on land, though, the set doesn't help to establish place.

There are some moments of visual fun. We see some the trademark Lookingglass use of high-rise set design and staging using the space some 30 feet above the stage as actors climb the ship's rigging. There aren't enough visual surprises, though. Too often we spend time listening to the actors, as good as they are, explaining the tortured histories between the characters—their old and new rivalries and resentments. And listening to Stevenson's language treated with a reverence as if it were Shakespeare, spoken in hard to decipher, but surely authentic dialects.

John Babbo proves quite a seaworthy young actor as Jim Hawkins, as heroic a lad as one could imagine, and he holds the stage in a way that would be admirable for an actor of any age. There's fine character work in the adults around him, starting with Lawrence E. DiStasi as a humorously crusty Long John Silver (and yes, he does carry a puppet parrot on his shoulder and say "Avast, Matey"). Christopher Donahue is a hoot as the drunken Billy Bones, who initiates the dramatic conflict when he arrives at Mrs. Hawkins' Inn with a map to buried treasure on a Caribbean island. Steve Pickering is both the menacing Black Dog who pursues Billy Bones and the comical castaway Ben Gunn. Among the upper-class men who lead the expedition to seek the treasure, Matt DeCaro is a lovably pompous Squire Trelawney, with Philip Smith a suitably businesslike Captain Smollett and Andrew White the efficient and sensible Dr. Livesey.

It's a classy production, with solid performances and an attractive period look, but it's not much of an adventure. This version of the classic kids' adventure tale seems likely to bore kids, as well as the kids inside their adult companions.

Treasure Island will play Lookingglass Theatre, 821 N. Michigan Avenue, through January 31, 2016. For ticket information, visit

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-- John Olson