Chicago Theater Review: TREASURE ISLAND (Lookingglass Theatre Company)

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by Lawrence Bommer on October 18, 2015

in Theater-Chicago


Prepare to buckle your swashes, shiver your timbers and avoid Davey Jones’ locker. In a co-production with Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Lookingglass Theatre Company sets sail on a major maiden voyage–Mary Zimmerman’s world premiere journey to Treasure Island. Robert Louis Stevenson’s children’s classic remains a rip-snorting epic of tattooed pirates, buried doubloons, delayed revenge, talking parrots, skeletons in trees, the curse of the “Black Spot,” and a battle of blades and bullets in an island stockade. Naturally, it’s grist for Zimmerman’s merry mill. In the Waterworks theater the swaying deck of a fully-rigged schooner is all the passport to adventure an audience could desire.

Cast of Treasure Island

Featuring a 14-member ensemble of Chicago’s finest and an endearing folk-music score by Andre Pluess, this rollicking 150-minute dramatization of Stevenson’s sea story is fully faithful to its beloved source. Wasting nothing on subtlety or psychology, Treasure Island is young Jim Hawkins’ coming of age/loss of innocence story, his brutal introduction into adult evil. The wide-eyed boy undergoes a crash course in conspiracy, treachery and skullduggery. Happily, he also discovers enough loyalty to reward a brave Bristol lad full of cleverness, resilience and spunk. As played by 14-year-old John Babbo (not a future star but a present one), Jim relates his storied exploits in the South Seas as he sets off for buried treasure and enough seafaring memories to last a lifetime.

Matt DeCaro, John Babbo, Andrew White

Jim’s odyssey begins when brigand Billy Bones (Christopher Donahue) invades his mother’s boarding house with a map of the late Captain Flint’s hoard of gold bounty, ill-gotten gains buried on the title isle. Money levels all ranks–and in no time the town’s respectable citizens–trusting and officious Squire Trelawney (Matt DeCaro), noble-souled Dr. Livesey (Andrew White), and stalwart and suspicious Captain Smollett (Philip R. Smith)–have outfitted the Hispaniola for a trip to the tropics. They hoist sails in high hopes, intent on a retrieval of riches to make them all filthy rich.

Ariel Shafir and John Babbo

Unfortunately, some truly filthy creatures (Ana Kuzmanic’s costumes are the dirtiest to grace–or rather disgrace–a stage) have booked passage too. They’re led by the infamous corsair Long John Silver (Lawrence E. DiStasi, young for the part and very athletic considering his peg leg). He’s picked his own crew–who fully intend to plunder the trove and slaughter the non-pirates. But Jim discovers their nefarious intent.

Lawrence E. DiStaciIt all explodes in a convoluted second-act showdown with multiple mutinies. Jim’s sense of honor is tested by a rash vow. (Never give your word to the scum of the sea.) He must choose between phony leaders and true ones. It helps that the good guys get unexpected assistance from an eccentric castaway–Ben Gunn (Steve Pickering, contagiously crazy) who instantly recalls the demented jailbird in The Count of Monte Cristo.

Seeking more thrills than feelings, Zimmerman pulls out her patented stops, aided by set designer Todd Rosenthal, to turn pages into pictures–a miniature replica of the Hispaniola, processions carrying palm fronds, a marvelously mechanical parrot named “Captain Flint,” trap doors and swinging rigging, and assorted derring-do with sabers and pistols. The performances are as captivating as the pell-mell plot requires.

Steve Pickering (standing). John Babbo

But a tad too often these hijinks and lojinks seem more fun than Stevenson intended: For all the camp menace of these melodramatic buccaneers, we get little sense of danger here and too much cavorting with caricatures. Along with the adventure, the 1881-1882 serialization revealed a British boy’s confusion over the “ambiguity of morality,” as iniquitous Long John Silver is exposed as a false father figure, compared to the nobler (well, not here) Squire Trelawney and Dr. Livesey.

Kasey Foster, Travis DelGado, John Babbo, Lawrence E. DiStaci

But on this stage there’s no time for emotional baggage. We’ve booked passage on a ship of fools, according to Zimmerman’s manic mockery. Treasure Island is never less than entertaining but it could have been more. And that’s something nobody regretted about Lookingglass’s other sea saga this season–the marvelous Moby Dick. There was nothing sick about that sea.

Andrew White, Philip R. Smith and Matt DeCaro

Clockwise from top- Kasey Foster, Christopher Donahue, Anthony Irons, Ariel Shafirphotos by Liz Lauren

Treasure Island
Lookingglass Theatre Company
co-production with Berkeley Rep
Water Tower Water Works
821 N. Michigan Ave.
ends on January 31, 2016
for tickets, call (312) 337-0665
or visit Lookingglass Theatre

for more Chicago Theater info,
visit Theatre in Chicago

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

John Schmidt December 6, 2015 at 7:36 am

Saw the show last night. Could only understand 5% of Jim Hawkins. Otherwise it was great.


Don Skoller January 21, 2016 at 9:32 pm

I sat through Treasure Island at Lookingglass Theater last night, and it turned out to be one of the most frustrating experiences of my theater-going life. It caused me to go online today to see if others had had a similar experience and it turned out to be like that of John Schmidt, whose comment shown above reflects his experience several weeks back. I agree that the acting was “uniformly excellent” except for the indecipherable diction of the Jim Hawkins performer. The director’s allowing this was a fatal flaw to enjoying the show, at least to those of us in the audience who were left behind every time he opened his mouth.

Yet I can’t say as Schmidt does that “Otherwise it was great.” Aside from Lookingglass’s customary great “acrobatic” staging, I wonder, as does the reviewer Mr. Bommer, about the density of the adaptation itself, written and directed by Mary Zimmerman as a theatrical, as opposed to literary, experience–book in hand, turning pages at your own pace.


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