A phenomenal review for TREASURE ISLAND by Bonnie K. Daman of The Column by John Garcia

We’ve been excited at PlazaCo for some time about TREASURE ISLAND. We knew we’d have to pull off something special to present something new and unique for our patrons, and TREASURE ISLAND is just the ticket. We’ve received our first review of the production from Bonnie K. Daman of The Column by John Garcia, and she’s given us a stellar review of the show. Read on for her comments and recommendation – then give us a call at 817-202-0600 to get your seats.

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_____________________TREASURE ISLAND_______________________

Reviewed by Bonnie K. Daman, Associate Theater Critic
for John Garcia’s THE COLUMN

NOTICE: This production contains edge-of-your-seat; adventure-laden scenes of swashbuckling, mutiny, buried treasure and a top notch cast of landlubbers this side of the seven seas. Please take care you may end up wanting to become a pirate.

Robert Louis Stevenson’s story Treasure Island is an adventurous coming-of-age tale laced with unforgettable characters and plots to intrigue the interests of young and old alike. At the center, young boy Jim Hawkins and the infamous peg-legged pirate Long John Silver carry the weight of the story that also represents themes of trust, friendship and honor. The play, adapted by Kevin Ludwig, won the AATE Distinguished Play Award for Best Adaption in 2009, and this season Plaza Theatre Company in Cleburne, TX is proving why.

It’s 1775. Fourteen-year-old Jim Hawkins is tending to his family’s inn on the Devon coast of England when the drunken, dangerous Billy Bones places a map in Jim’s hands; a map to buried treasure sought out by the sinister Blind Pew and a rabble rousing gang of bloodthirsty pirates.

Narrowly escaping with the map, Hawkins enlists the help of the local authorities and seamen to seek out the treasure. On board the Hispaniola, Hawkins, now cabin boy, meets and forms a special bond with Long John Silver, a ruthless buccaneer masquerading as the ship’s cook. Unbeknownst to the voyagers, Silver and his crew have a dastardly plan to hijack the ship, the map and the treasure. Only the unlikely friendship of Silver and Hawkins, the boy with a heart of gold, can help good triumph over evil.

There are two things that Plaza Theatre Company is known for: Great family-friendly musicals and great knee-slapping comedies. Add to that whatever category Treasure Island falls in and Plaza rightly has another success on its hands. Director Aaron Siler admits that after 47 shows this is a first for the theatre. It’s not quite a musical and not quite comedy, yet Siler and the Plaza producers have no need to explain themselves because this production adheres to the same caliber and excellence I read about when it comes to this playhouse in Cleburne Town Square.

Every piece of this production, from the atmosphere on set to the cast of characters, contributes to painting Stevenson’s elaborate story that captivatingly unfolds on this stage in the round. Siler handles the bulk load of the production side, adding Light Design, Sound Design, Set Design and Video Projection to his laundry list of credits and each one deserves recognition of its own.

The set is unassuming when you first walk in. Dual level benches serve as the bow of a ship, a masthead is positioned center stage, the helm is set off in one corner, and in the other, a single rustically painted wall complete with curtained window and a door. What you don’t notice until the stage is cleared of additional props is the floor. Stretching across the stage floor is a map neatly painted by the set team and complete with a nautical compass star, the tracings of a ship en voyage, and islands scattered about recreating a giant version of the story’s treasure map.

A hazy fog begins pouring onto the set, and the lights dim to a dark, menacing hue. Two rope ladders leading up to the unseen crow’s nest drops down on opposite ends of the stage encasing the center arena as a makeshift ship. While the setup for the boat is utilized for roughly fifty percent of the show, Siler simply recedes the rode ladders, removes a few telltale pieces, the single wall becomes a 360-degree rotating device, and the set effortlessly transforms into an inn or the interior of a barricade, then the island, and back to the ship. It’s quite a remarkable makeover in such a small space, and the cast makes it happen in only seconds as they transition scenes.

When the stage is converted into Treasure Island, the center masthead becomes the most versatile, and my favorite piece. The actors easily attach and lock in four scraggly branches weighed down with moss and foliage representing a dense jungle, and creates an excellent haven for skullduggery and mischievousness.

The lighting design is some of the best work I’ve seen this summer. It contributes to the emotional pace of the show and frames the actors in perfect synchronization throughout many scene changes or when it’s appropriate to draw attention to the action on stage.

Siler’s use of the video projectors can have its benefits however I don’t see much need for them for this production. They do add an extra element to the set design, flashing serene landscape images to enhance the improvised open sea or untouched jungle. It’s a nice effect but more of an afterthought.

Finally, Siler’s direction is succinct and a perfect fit to Plaza’s repertoire. Though not branded as a musical, audiences will enjoy the band of shanty men who serenade their way through a handful of scene changes; a lively group that adds members as the death toll on stage rises. Some classic pirate songs such as “What Shall We Do with the Drunken Sailor” and “Yo Ho Ho (and a Bottle of Rum)” will have audience members humming or singing along.

Siler’s overall vision and aspiration for the show comes down to Tina Barrus who is credited for outfitting the crew of Englishmen and pirates, and they are far from cartoonish. If you expect colorful caricatures of a Disney-esque pirate then you will be sadly disappointed but in a good way. Barrus’ costume design for the pirates is a gritty portrayal of their social status in the 18th Century. In a word – scum. The costumes are filthy, rusty and misshapen, and help the actors sell their characters to the audience.

One accessory to highlight is the custom eye patch worn by Billy Bones, created by artist Brad Sims. Also, Blind Pew’s signature over-sized beggar’s cape and the completely tattered and torn outfit worn by Ben Gunn in Act II exemplify Barrus’ eye for costuming and her ability to collaborate with the director’s vision.

Missing from the playbill is credit to Luke Hunt for the show’s fight choreography. The sound of swords clashing onstage enforces the fact that these are not toys. Hunt’s choreography is simple enough in form but is staged just right to heighten the appearance of deathly blows and characters barely escaping injury.

Hunt does double duty for the production as he also stars as Long John Silver, the instigator of the Hispaniola’s mutinous voyage to Treasure Island. Before his entrance I begin to remember snippets of the story and it dawns on me that Silver is notoriously known as the pirate with the wooden leg, a peg leg. I ask myself, “How is Plaza going to pull this off?”

Hunt makes his entrance wearing a knee to toe “wooden” boot, an extremely uncomfortable looking object, but he limps around on it like a professional. Eventually the boot no longer remains an issue because Hunt gives a dynamic performance that eliminates any misgivings about the believability of his character’s condition.

A large portion of Silver’s tale interacts with the young Jim Hawkins. It has the underlying story of a tender father/son bond but for obvious reasons is one of the oddest and conflicting relationships. Hunt carries this theme well and his chemistry onstage with Hawkins is just one highlight of the show. He is successfully impulsive and cunning, you can never tell what side he is on, and due to Hunt’s charm and charisma you secretly find yourself rooting for the most loathsome of all pirates.

Cast as Jim Hawkins is eighth grader Cooper Rodgers. Rodgers amazes as the protagonist and narrator of the play. He shows composure and finesse amongst his older counterparts, and has an uncanny command over the audience when he narrates. Rodgers exceeds at the physicality needed for the role, and his emotional intelligence matches the upheaval and turmoil imposed on the character.

Act II epitomizes the coming-of-age for Hawkins as he must make life or death decisions, keep or fall back on his word, and ultimately choose loyalties. Rodgers effectively portrays all of these and is joy to watch.

Of the refined cast of characters, which is few, Greg Burton, JaceSon P. Barrus and Jay Cornils will probably rate low on the “coolness” scale for kids when compared to the pirates, but each of these gentlemen give a splendid performance. Burton, as the kooky Squire Trelawney, adds some much needed laughs. Nearly forty minutes into the show, his entrance gives the audience a collective breather from the intense scenes with Captain Flint and Billy Bones, and thankfully the character and the one-liners stick around.

Barrus doubles up as Dr. Livesey and Captain Flint, the latter barely onstage before his untimely demise, but it’s a great appearance channeling the likes of Geoffrey Rush’s Captain Barbossa. Cornils rounds out the trio as Captain Smollett representing law and order, and he plays the character just so.

A special cameo, Siler appears in Act I as the notorious Billy Bones, the pirate that starts (or ends) it all for Jim Hawkins. Bones is a drunken outcast who holds the secret map to Treasure Island, and Siler is skilled at playing the roughed up, heart attack prone man sentenced to death.

Bones’ messenger of death is Blind Pew. Aaron Lett gives an unnerving performance as Pew, and I relished in the insanity of the character. His eyes hidden under an over-sized cloak, the fingerless gloves and the hollow tapping of his walking stick all combine to create an exciting but frightening person to watch.

A standout performance in Act II, Jonathan Kennedy plays Ben Gunn, formally marooned on Treasure Island and left for dead by Captain Flint. Kennedy’s appearance is brief but the effects of his presence on or from off stage is electrifying. Children in the audience will get a rise out of Gunn’s cravings for cheese.

The remaining players form a tight knit cast with a few carrying the bulk of the action: Raymond Blanton (George Merry), Nathaniel Harper (Israel Hands) and even a few ladies join the menacing group of pirates and non-pirates. Caroline Rivera in particular, as Anne Bonny, gives a strong performance as a ruthless bandit, and her portrayal is not overdone. As a whole it’s a cast that moves and interacts well together.

A regional premier, Treasure Island at Plaza Theatre Company is not one to be missed! For those that know Stevenson’s work or have experienced one of Hollywood’s many films on the story, seeing the characters come to life on stage is incomparable and an experience you won’t forget.

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