Treasure Island

After sitting, slack-jawed and seething, through the Alley Theatre's world-premiere adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's classic adventure novel, you might be tempted to rename it Ken Ludwig's Pirated Tale, or The Alley at Sea, or Jim Hawkins in Drag. Whatever you call it, it isn't Treasure Island, and more's the pity.

Stevenson's never-fail tale of young Jim on his hazardous voyage among rapacious buccaneers in search of buried treasure rivals Dickens in atmosphere, indelible characters, sweeping language, immediacy and plain old fun. It's the ultimate yarn. Once read, the book stays with you forever. Every chapter smells of the sea and salt spray. Full of danger and mysterious excitement, the story catches wind right from the beginning when “filthy, bleared scarecrow of a pirate” Bill Bones drags his sea chest, with the treasure map that everybody wants, into the Admiral Benbow Inn and into Jim Hawkins's life. Jim will never be the same again, as he faces imminent death, deception and treachery, all of which test his moral compass. His voyage of self-discovery, though not overly emphasized by Stevenson, is the silent heart of the book, especially in his conflicting relationship with that shifty old sea dog, one-legged Long John Silver, one of literature's greatest creations: a black-hearted villain who nevertheless possesses a few doubloons of redemption. He's both adversary and ally to Jim's plucky naif.

If there ever was a novel that deserves grand theatrical treatment, it's this one. It has everything: picaresque 18th-century English period flavor, flashing cutlasses, billowing sails, a crazy hermit, a band of scurvy pirates and a talking parrot. But instead of bracing sea air, the Alley's production gives off an undeniable whiff of dry rot. The whole thing weighs a ton, and the fun's been keelhauled. What happened to Stevenson?

Forty lashes to playwright Ken Ludwig (Lend Me a Tenor, Moon over Buffalo) for his ballast-heavy adaptation. He loads on large swaths of his own exposition (like Jim's father being shanghaied by Silver years before the story starts) that becalm the tale or take it way off course. Where Stevenson suggests, Ludwig bludgeons — Jim and Silver swapping Shakespearean quotes is horribly wrong. Ludwig doesn't trust Stevenson.

And whose bright idea was it to have Jim played by a woman? What the hell is this loopy English pantomime doing in Treasure Island? What's next, Dame Edna as Long John Silver? Nothing against Elizabeth Bunch, who's a lovely actor, but not for a moment do we believe she's a he: the wrong age, size and sex. This is just another example of the poor choices that scuttle the show. We never recover from the shock.

Then there's the woman buccaneer (Melissa Pritchett)! Why is she aboard the good ship Hispaniola? Don't the piggy pirates find her terribly distracting? You'd think they'd leer, ogle, feel her up or something. Sexily costumed like a Halloween lady pirate in thigh-high boots, bustier and hiked-up gown, she could be Ludwig's politically correct token. Your guess is as good as mine.

And then there's Silver's stuffed parrot, perched dead in the cage with his amplified screech, “Pieces of eight, pieces of eight!,” like a Monty Python routine gone sour. This exemplifies the overall misplaced tone of the adaptation, which can't decide if it's to be played straight or wacky and over-the-top. Walk the plank, director Gregory Boyd, for allowing the production to careen rudderless. Stevenson paints his seafaring world with blood and guts, but the Alley plays it careful. Where the fighting should be savage, it's controlled. Where death should be vicious and unforeseen, it looks rehearsed. And where's that rum-chugging pirate thirst that Stevenson invented and made famous? We might as well be at a temperance meeting. Nobody really cuts loose. What actor doesn't relish playacting a pirate? The company tries hard to have a yo-ho-ho time at it, but their joy stops at the footlights. They seem to be in uncharted territory without a map.

James Black, though, is a sprightly rapscallion of a Silver, hopping about on his crutch with a gymnast's dexterity and gurgling in demonic glee when the buried riches are within reach. You can see why Jim is both fascinated and repulsed by this nightmarish surrogate father figure. Mark Shanahan snarls and roars appropriately as mutinous wannabe George Merry, and Noble Shropshire gleefully prances about as mad Ben Gunn, chuckling over the delectable thought of roasted cheese.

While the production is much too bright and without briny atmosphere, Tony Award-winning designer Eugene Lee goes minimalist with a clean, clear look of ship's planks and hints of rigging and pier pilings — a pared-down overhaul of his latest Broadway work for The Pirate Queen. The costumes by Constance Hoffman are richly textured and at least give us something to look at while Ludwig drones on and on.

There have been dozens of adaptations since Stevenson penned his immortal work as a magazine serial in 1881. Ken Ludwig's tepid version should get the “black spot.”

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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover