Shiver Me Timbers! St. Louis Shakespeare takes to the high seas with Treasure Island

Nov 12, 2009 at 4:00 am

Once again the good ship Hispaniola is setting sail for Treasure Island, the accursed isle that was made memorable in Robert Louis Stevenson's 1883 adventure novel about young Jim Hawkins, who went to sea in search of stolen pirates' gold and fell among bad companions. If you approach the current St. Louis Shakespeare production of Treasure Island with the same buoyant spirit in which it's being offered, this evening spent with Black Dog, Blind Pew and other sundry villainous cutthroats can be jovial indeed.

In truth, what we're seeing here is hardly a treasure trove of a script. The playbill would have us believe that — like the original story — it was written by Stevenson. While I can't disprove that, I remain dubious that Stevenson (even if he knew nothing about playwriting) could write such a flat play. There's no love of language here; Stevenson's ever-colorful voice is not present. Director Jerry Vogel seems to be well aware of what he's working with. He has approached the production as if it's an empty chest waiting to be filled with plunder. The result is a theater hybrid: It's the narrative of Treasure Island meshed with the airiness of Peter Pan. It's the more serious St. Louis Shakespeare as run through the blender of the irreverent Magic Smoking Monkey. Even when you don't quite follow what's happening onstage, you can have fun.

The saga begins in England, continues on the high seas (mutiny!) and climaxes on its namesake location. Burdened by a stage at the Missouri History Museum that's not up to the demands this story makes, Vogel has settled on a unit set (by Cristie Johnston) that works better at sea than it does on land. It's colorfully lit by Sean M. Savoie. The imaginative sound design by Jeff Roberts, both functional and exotic, cleverly generates all its gunfire through an offstage drummer. But mostly it's the actors who have to keep this story afloat. When you consider how weighted down they are by the script, they deserve much credit.

Tom Kopp seizes the evening as that prodigious villain and monstrous imposter Long John Silver. One almost senses that Kopp fasts all day prior to performance. Then, nearly starved, he hobbles onstage on Silver's peg leg and devours the role. Kopp is well matched by Emily Jackoway as Jim Hawkins. We all have the right to be suspicious when boys' roles are cast with girls. But this time it works well. Jackoway delivers all the conviction and passion the part requires. Stevenson told his story through Jim's eyes, and this Jim's eyes are large and fervent. "It was a boy's game, and I thought I could hold my own at it," Jim tells us in the novel. Vogel's Treasure Island is also a boy's game, and Jackoway more than holds her own.

By evening's end the sheer reach of Stevenson's story begins to overwhelm the adaptation. Or perhaps it's that the original story doesn't really build to a fitting stage climax. Whatever the reason, the play's final moments are among its weakest. Although the staging is briskly paced, by the time it ends, there's a good chance you'll be ready to set a course for the Boathouse and a bracing bottle of rum.

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