By Ken Ludwig
Adapted from the novel by Robert Louis Stevenson
Directed by Blake Robison
Produced By Round House Theatre
Reviewed by Steven McKnight
Most of our conceptions of pirates date back to Robert Louis Stevenson’s beloved Treasure Island. Now that pirates are popular again, it’s hardly surprising that we have a new theatrical take on that famous tale with a literate script by Ken Ludwig and a polished professional production at Round House Theatre that represents the East Coast premiere of the work.
One of Mr. Ludwig’s adaptive devices, borrowing from the historical tradition of having a woman playing a boy’s role, works well thanks to an enthusiastic and endearing performance by Marybeth Fritzky as our protagonist, young Jim Hawkins. Other new wrinkles range from mildly interesting, such as the use of Shakespearean quotes as a bonding device, to the inconsequential, such as the introduction of two female characters not found in the novel.
The production begins with a useful prologue setting the back-story of Captain Flint’s treasure and the pirate characters who will seek the map leading to those riches. Mr. Ludwig’s script then takes us through the events leading to the transfer of the map to Jim with reasonable efficiency and clever humor, despite a fair amount of required exposition. Soon Jim is set to be a cabin boy on a treasure cruise arranged by Squire Trelawney and Dr. Livesy.
The story really starts to take off with the introduction of Long John Silver, who Mr. Ludwig frames as a surrogate father-figure for Jim. As played by Mark Mineart, Silver is a powerful stage presence. His leadership of the other pirates comes from more than just charm and guile, although he has those qualities in abundance. Once Silver helps fill out the crew of the ship with his pirate friends, the seeds are sown for a wonderful tale of adventure, treachery, and the moral ambiguity that helps the novel rise to the ranks of literature.
In general, the performers seemed to be enjoying their roles, acting with good energy while retaining a core of realism. Standouts in a strong cast playing multiple roles included Michael Tolaydo, especially as Blind Pew, and Michael Anthony Williams, an entertaining Ben Gunn.
The production is handsomely staged, with fine sets, appealing costumes, well-designed lighting. The sound design also helps set appropriate moods, although occasionally distracting to those seated too close to the side speakers.
Despite these positive attributes, however, during the first act the whole of the production seemed less powerful than the sum of the high-quality parts. Only after intermission did the action really seem to engage the audience on a stronger level.
Once the adventure fully kicks in, however, Treasure Island moves with pace and purpose. The plot turns are handled adroitly and Fight Director Richard Ryan choreographs a variety of excellent individual and group battle scenes that are much more exciting than the earlier highly stylized swordplay. The production finally embraces fully the characteristics that make the swashbuckler a beloved story genre among many of us, both young and old.
While I cannot say that the evening presented all of the rollicking good fun I had hoped for, this production does present solid entertainment, especially for fans of Treasure Island (either the novel or any of the over fifty filmed versions). Mr. Ludwig and Director Blake Robison work to maximize opportunities for humor throughout the show and the classic story still works on multiple levels.
As a final note, Round House Theatre is aggressively marketing this production as a family show, including operating a “Pirate’s Cove” with information and games for children just off the lobby. While I heartily encourage bringing youth to the theatre, the length of the show, the complexity of the plot, and the accents and language involved mean it may not be the best entertainment choice for small children. You may also want to consider going over the basic plot with children in advance, perhaps by following the link from the Round House Theatre website to the Wikipedia summary of the novel.
Running Time: 2:10 with 1 intermission
Where: Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda, MD
When: Now thru Dec 30th
Tickets: $50 (weekday) or $60 (weekend); all child/teen tickets are $20.
Info: Box Office: (240) 644-1100, or visit the website.