Yo ho ho and a bottle of Ben Gunn! The Stratford Festival is mounting a new adaptation of Treasure Island as part of its Schulich Children’s Plays series – and the most exciting character in the show isn’t a one-legged pirate named Long John Silver, but a half-crazed castaway played by aerialist and actor Katelyn McCulloch.
As Ben Gunn, McCulloch impressively swings from silks while reciting monologues, springs from branch to branch of the Oath Tree as she swears her allegiance to cheese, and finds exactly the right tone to please adults and kiddies alike.
Alas, not enough else in director Mitchell Cushman’s production succeeds at the same level before Gunn arrives in the second act to right a ship that was steered toward the rocks.
Treasure Island, the popular 1882 adventure novel by Robert Louis Stevenson, has a long history of being adapted for theatre and, as with most quests translated to the stage, rarely with memorable results. A musical by Gypsy composer Jule Styne that premiered at Citadel Theatre in Edmonton in 1985, for instance, was buried like a dead man’s chest afterward.
Rather than use one of the many pre-existing adaptations (as with The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe last year), the Stratford Festival has commissioned a Canadian playwright to wrought this version: Nicolas Billon, known for his monologue triptychs such as Iceland and the widely produced thriller Butcher.
Billon adds a framing device so we open in the present day on James (Thomas Mitchell Barnet), reading the first chapter of Treasure Island with his father (Juan Chioran) before bed. But as the boy falls asleep on the bottom bunk below his selfie-snapping sister (McCulloch, too), the rest of the story begins to come to life around him. The boy’s flashlight transforms into a candle – and suddenly, he’s Jim Hawkins working at an inn on England’s west coast.
After an old sailor named Billy Bones (Bruce Hunter) is murdered, Jim discovers his treasure map – and soon enough, he’s sailing off with Dr. Livesey (Sarah Dodd) and Squire Trelawney (Randy Hughson) to search for where X marks the spot.
I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that the ship’s hired cook, Long John Silver (Chioran, looking the part perfectly), soon turns out to have more on his mind that peeling potatoes. After intermission, there’s mutiny and sword fights galore and a race between the good guys and pirates to find the buried loot.
While it doesn’t contain the explicit gruesomeness of Billon’s Butcher, Treasure Island does have more shootouts than I’ve ever seen on stage in a show at Stratford for children or adults. Parents will need to know that Cushman’s production never finds a consistent way to deal with the violence – certain characters die in agony in plain view; others are taken off stage to be executed out of sight; and some deaths are played purely for laughs, such as when an inflatable pirate is thrown to the stage from one of the balconies.
At one moment, dodge balls substitute (amusingly) for cannon balls – but, in the next, old-fashioned pistols are (scarily) spitting fire and making plug-your-ears bangs. Over all, it’s a see-what-sticks style of staging that includes an animatronic parrot that’s half as enchanting as a puppet would have been.
There are are some unforced errors in Douglas Paraschuk’s set design, too – repeated issues with sightlines from the opening tableaux onward. Most glaringly, the good ship Hispaniola’s prow is rolled up to the lip of the stage and juts out over the audience; a couple seated up close griped to a me a little at intermission about how much of their view was obstructed in the first act.
The noisiness and visual chaos of the show preintermission culminates in a pirate-rock rendition of Yo Ho Ho and a Bottle of Rum – and, if this hadn’t been a matinee, I might have taken the hint. Thankfully, in the second half, Gunn appears and Billon lets us get to know the characters a bit more, with Chioran and Dodd giving grounded performances that anchor the show. The seafaring jargon of Stevenson’s book is tempered by more of a contemporary pantomime spirit – complete with a moment where children (and enthusiastic adults) get to shout “look out behind you.” Mock references to Survivor and Hamlet cover cultural bases high and low. Treasure Island slowly walks itself back off the plank.