As I settled into my cabaret table at Woolfe Street Playhouse for the opening of Village Repertory Company’s Treasure Island, I somewhat sheepishly admitted to myself that I had never actually cracked the binding on Robert Louis Stevenson’s famed tale of scurrilous scallywags and elusive booty. And yes, this was a shame-inflected realization for a self-avowed lifelong lit lover.
Why was such a revered coming-of-age gem as out of reach as Bill Bones’ sea chest? I quickly let myself off that pirate’s hook, recalling that the adventure mainly claimed real estate on boys’ book shelves, likely next to the editions featuring the Hardy Boys and the once-male-only Boy Scout’s Handbook. In my formative years, I had instead roamed the prairie with the pioneering Laura Ingalls Wilder or hung about the brood of sisters in Little Women, getting but a wee whiff of salt air and scrap compliments of a feral redhead known as Pippi.
So I missed out on the fearless, pirate-plagued young Jim Hawkins as he hoisted the sails and aimed to save the day. Maybe it was all the better then that my first foray was this recent gender-tweaked, dramatized version of the story, which was adapted by Bryony Lavery and premiered at the National Theatre in London during the Christmas of 2014 (with its positive reception, it also appears that the playwright has fully rebounded from a media flap in 2004 regarding alleged plagiarism that riddled her Tony-nominated play Frozen).
Here, Jim (Olivia Gainey) is a young girl, as is her faithful guardian, Dr. Livesy (Laura Ball). There is a female pirate, Joan the Goat (Madelyn Knight) and a ship’s mate, Red Ruth (Grace Benigni), illustrating that both the good guys and bad guys can be good and bad lasses. And these deft gender upheavals opened up a whole new world for me, as Jim musters courage, employs her wits, and engages in mortal combat to protect and serve.
What was particularly compelling about all this was that the switch up wasn’t a stretch at all, and felt natural and plausible. What’s more, the Village Rep production directed by Keely Enright is also boatloads of grimey, rough hewn fun. True to its artistic bent, the company always goes the extra mile in production and ambition, wrangling heavyweight casts and harnessing expansive, impressive sets into the Woolfe Street space in ways that time and again demonstrate what is possible with a bit of dramatic derring-do.
About that setting: The action takes place on a crafty, creaking mass of boards, which alternately represent The Admiral Benbow Inn in Bristol, where Jim and his grandmother (Samille Basler) first serve the grog-happy, gruff Bill Bones (the suitably forbidding Dave Reinwald), and the Hispanolia, the ship in which Jim, Squire Trelawney (Robbie Thomas) et al set out to find the island on which is buried a sizeable treasure.
From there, hijinks on the high seas ensue, as Squire Trelawney enlists a crew staffed with a few folks he knows, unwittingly supplemented with a nasty band of pirates (all outfitted to outlandish perfection by Julie Ziff). Long John Silver, who is played with cunning menace by Brian Turner, calls the shots, gathering a rogue’s gallery of miscreants and troublemakers, the likes of whom you would not want to meet in a lifeboat. Collectively, they are formidable, while also being quite funny, chief among them Joan the Goat, which Knight plays with brutish lunacy, followed by the equally fierce consort. And, speaking of humor, John Black gets a special nod as Ben Gunn, interpreting the cabin boy’s special brand of half-baked wit to great comic effect.
The heart of the show, is, of course, Jim, who is portrayed with earnest zeal by the fresh-faced newcomer Gaines. With page boy coif and gentle pluck, Gaines delivers a Jim that is a credible, appealing center to the shenanigans, while also delivering requisite physical blows to other characters when required (there is ample staged combat throughout the show). I was rooting for Gaines’ Jim all the way, and it was clear from the audience’s rousing applause that they were, too.
As the show progresses, both playwright and players make increasing sport of the adventure, including Long John Silver’s sidekick parrot that manages to both poke fun and eyeballs. As pursuers and pursued hunt each other and hidden treasure, running hither and yon through imagined tunnels and such, it is easy to immerse oneself in the adventure at hand and to experience the sheer joy of the hunt that Stevenson dreamed up long ago.
The play also skillfully navigates less-charted territory in boy-powered classics retold successfully by instead placing young girls at the helm. I would venture that there may even be more fun to had in this rollicking play, and it may pop up to the surface as the run progresses. The pacing could also be tightened, so perhaps those theatrical sails could be trimmed a tad, too. Still, this full-on, family-friendly take on Treasure Island has plenty to dazzle as it is, and has plenty of gold to discover.