There are times, watching the Stratford Festival’s robust production of Treasure Island, when we might be forgiven for thinking that a lithe-limbed aerial contortionist named named Katelyn McCulloch is the star of the show.
After all, we’re constantly catching our breath as her spandex-clad body does unbelievable things high above the Avon Theatre stage. She’s a chattering tree creature with a penchant for cheese and a suspicion of earth-bound humans — although she is prepared to make an exception for the story’s young hero, Jim Hawkins.
Obviously, there’s nothing like this high-flying delight in the Robert Louis Stevenson classic on which this show is based — so let’s concede that Nicolas Billon, the Canadian dramatist responsible for this skillful adaptation, and director Mitchell Cushman have indeed taken liberties with the material. The production’s most audacious move is to turn Ben Gunn, the marooned seaman who has been leading a hermit-like existence on the island for years, into somebody like Katelyn McCulloch.
Yet it’s fascinating to see how well this decision works within the context of the story. Furthermore, it solves the problem of what to do with the problematic but crucial character of Ben Gunn in these politically correct times. McCulloch’s Ben may now be an airborne eccentric, but you don’t question her sanity.
Treasure Island has worked well as a movie, but it has proved more resistant to stage adaptation. At Stratford, we’re seeing an imaginative attempt to make the show work in the theatre — an attempt that, on the whole reaps dividends. Billon’s adaptation, true to the sensibility of the original, reveals a solid narrative momentum and a gift for peppering proceedings with the kind of big set-piece moments that children will adore. And under Cushman’s lively direction, the youngsters in the audience on opening afternoon were given every opportunity to share in the excitement — shouting out warnings to characters during the performance, and lining up afterwards to receive a gold coin. Furthermore, there is also enough in this production to reawaken the child that still lurks within those of us who are adults.
There is a framing device for this version with a youngster named James being read a wondrous bedtime story about an island with hidden treasure. The story is being read to him by his father, played by Juan Chioran, who will later materialize as that charismatic, one-legged villain, Long John Silver. And the sister tossing and turning on the top level of the children’s bunk bed is played by Katelyn McCulloch who will later re-emerge in the treetops as Ben Gunn. There comes a moment when electricity transforms into flickering candle light and the old Admiral Benbow Inn takes shape before our eyes, with James becoming Jim Hawkins, the adventurous 13-year-old soon to be confronted by the mysterious Billy Bones, a rum-soaked old pirate obsessed with a strange island and its gold treasure.
So maybe it’s all a dream in Stratford’s realization. But no matter. Mitchell Cushman is still bringing the world of the novel alive along with a team of vital collaborators: Douglas Paraschuk (sets), Charlotte Dean (costumes), Kevin Fraser (lighting), Debashis Sinha (music and sound design), John Stead (fight director) and Nick Bottomley, the man behind some stunning projections.
This is not a sanitized version of the novel. Horror, violence and personal loss will stalk the decks when Jim and his friends set sail in search of treasure. Bruce Hunter’s Billy Bones is a doom-haunted old boozer who dies early on. As that sinister villain, Blind Pew, Deirdre Gillard-Rowlings overcomes her unorthodox casting to be genuinely scary. Then there is Long John Silver — ship’s cook, friend and mentor to young Jim, and the most cunning of rogues. Charisma trumps menace in Juan Chioran’s portrayal, but this is how it should be: Chioran recognizes Long John’s complexity, but his artful blending of swagger and charm helps explain why this is one of the most popular villains in dramatic literature.
However, the violence is definitely there, and you can’t cop out on it without betraying the original. Characters do die unpleasantly in this production — indeed one brutal sequence signals the moment when young Jim becomes a man. Still, for all the expertly managed thrills, there is uncertainty and unease about how to deal with the violence. The gun lobby may applaud this production, but there’s a problem of tone when you have cartoon deaths jostling uncomfortably with more graphic killings.
Nevertheless this is a spirited and entertaining production. The sturdiness of Thomas Mitchell Burnett’s performance as Jim is a major strength here. But there also solid contributions from the supporting players — among them Randy Hughson as Squire Trelawney, Jim Codrington as the ship’s captain, Sarah Dodd as the doctor, and Gordon Patrick White as Black Dog. The pleasures afforded by the festival’s latest take on Treasure Island are real and legitimate.
(Treasure Island continues to Oct. 22. Further information at 1 800 567 1600 or stratfordfestival.ca)