Presented by Nashville Children’s Theatre
Through Jan. 31 at NCT’s Hill Theatre
Pirates are cool. We know they’re supposed to be bad guysthey’re snarly, swarthy and bloodthirstyand we know that their shipboard efforts are in the service of rebellious, outlaw activities like smuggling and running from the King’s navy. But even though the “skull and crossbones” signifies dastardliness, there’s something about these ornery scalawags that translates into a magnetic sense of adventure and excitement.
The modern world can, in part, thank the Disney organization for this popular romanticization of late, since millions have visited and experienced Disney World’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” theme park tableaux. And the success of Gore Verbinski’s blockbuster 2003 film of the same name has directly brought pirate legend and lore to the contemporary entertainment forefront.
But long before all that, we could thank Scotsman author Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894) for what most of us know about pirates. His novel Treasure Island is a classic of adventure fiction, a genre in which he excelled. Besides being a prolific short story writer, Stevenson also wrote the classic novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, in addition to the beloved poetry collection A Child’s Garden of Verses. Yet it is Treasure Island that secured his international reputation, and various film and TV translationsmost notably, director Byron Haskin’s 1950 Hollywood version starring Bobby Driscoll and Robert Newtonhave made this stirring tale a synonym for swashbuckling derring-do. (The familiar phrase, “Fifteen men on the dead man’s chestYo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!” appears on the book’s very first page.)
Yet if the new rendition currently playing at Nashville’s Children’s Theatre short-shrifts us on the Cinemascopic visual feel of an oceangoing voyage, director Scot Copeland’s adaptation certainly focuses on people and character in salutary fashion. Primarily, we are reminded that the essence of Stevenson’s story, set in the 18th century, concerns the courage of a fatherless teenager, Jim Hawkins, who takes possession of a treasure map, shares it with some trusted older gentlemen, then embarks with them on the sailing ship Hispaniola to a faraway isle to find a fortune in gold doubloons.
Not to say that the NCT crew doesn’t do their best to turn Hill Theatre into a seafaring schooner. Sean Williams’ scenic design ably gives us a sense of multiple locations, from British coastal town to isolated island, and that includes shipboard scenes and a hoisting of the Jolly Roger once the pirates’ mutiny is afoot. Williams’ creative paint job on the theater’s fire curtain is also a wonder to behold. Patricia Taber provides authentic-looking costumes, and Paul Carrol Binkley has composed some grand incidental music.
On the critical literary front, Treasure Island has sometimes been assailed as possibly a tad convoluted and fraught with archaic language. So much the better that Copeland distills the book’s 34 chapters into its essential tale, offering snippets of verbal color (“Shiver me timbers!” for example) while maintaining the heart of the action, which plays out in about 70 minutes and climaxes with a fight scene punctuated by a fearsome, rafters-rattling gunshot.
There’s an excellent cast on board too, and somehow the six of them manage to seem like dozens. Matt Mellon is an earnest young Jim, and only he and Taber, who capably plays his mother, are cast in single roles. The othersRoss Brooks, Jonathan Root, Matt Chiorini and Henry Haggarddo double and triple duty, and one can only imagine that the backstage activity in switching roles and costumes might be occasionally as adventuresome as what’s happening onstage. It all works with precision, though.
Root re-establishes himself here as a very fine young thespian, playing the kindly and brave Dr. Livesey and a pirate role. The experienced Chiorini, who has previously appeared on every other major Nashville stage, makes his NCT debut in dual roles, most notably as the well-intentioned yet somewhat comical dandy Squire Trelawney. Haggard, who also helped direct the stage combat, takes three roles and has a whale of a character actor’s time with each, wringing out agitated comedic turns with seeming ease, in particular as the dotty, longtime marooned wildman Ben Gunn.
If there’s one performance worthy of sterner critique, it is that of Brooks as the story’s most well-known character, Long John Silver. Possibly, the modern imagination has been too influenced by the feisty but lovable, bigger-than-life Newton film portrayal. Nevertheless, Brooks, who certainly is the right physical type for the full-chested, one-legged buccaneer, offers us a kinder, gentler (or maybe just too laid-back) Silver, which works acceptably enough in the context of the show, but might have been broader and more playfully menacing. To his credit, he hobbles around nimbly on his crutch, and the excursion’s general direction stays on course anyway.
From there, it’s clear sailing till dawn.
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