Jim Hawkins (Elizabeth Bunch) falls under the influence of LJS.jpg

Jim Hawkins (Elizabeth Bunch) falls under the influence of Long John Silver (James Black) in Treasure Island at the Alley Theatre.

PC: Sharon Steinmann


For Alley Theatre's Greg Boyd, directing Treasure Island — the grandaddy of pirate tales — is a dream

May 21, 2007

Houston Chronicle

Avast! Hordes of bloodthirsty pirates are about to seize the Alley Theatre and sail off in search of hidden treasure.

And should any landlubber dare suggest the Alley's world premiere adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's adventure classic Treasure Island is riding the crest of the popular Pirates of the Caribbean flicks, Cap'n Greg Boyd, who's at the helm for this perilous journey, dismisses that notion as so much bilge.

A more accurate view, he says, is that Pirates of the Caribbean, like every pirate-themed entertainment since Treasure Island's initial publication in 1881, is to some extent following the wake of Stevenson's tale.

"Treasure Island virtually invented all we know of the pirate mythology,"Boyd says. "Like Dickens with A Christmas Carol, Stevenson invented a genre. Even J.M. Barrie, who took the next big step in pirate evolution when he wrote Peter Pan, said that without Stevenson, he wouldn't have had a clue."

Indeed, Stevenson established the basics of the pirate yarn: the arcane treasure map on which "X" marks the spot, the one-legged sailor replete with talking parrot, the voyage to a tropical isle, along with super villains and swordplay, which Stevenson did not invent but made part of the pirate recipe.

Even the Dead Man's Chest sea chanty ("15 men on a dead man's chest/Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum. . ."), referenced in just about every pirate tale since, originated in Treasure Island.

"So the Stevenson novel was the main inspiration," Boyd says. "Though it is a fun serendipity that we open the same day as Pirates of the Caribbean 3."

Seeking a literary work that would make a good vehicle for the Alley company, Boyd suggested Treasure Island to playwright Ken Ludwig; the Alley premiered Ludwig's Leading Ladies in 2004 and Be My Baby in 2005.

They considered other Stevenson works, including The Black Arrow and Master of Ballantrae, because Ludwig wanted a show with roles for women (Stevenson's tale has none.). Then Boyd told of his plan to cast Elizabeth Bunch as Jim Hawkins, the lad who becomes involved with pirates, casting he deemed helpful to the tale's coming-of-age aspects. Casting women as young boys is a staple in British theater; the current London-to-Broadway transfer Coram Boy relies on the device.

Ludwig and Boyd also added a female pirate, named for real-life woman pirate Anne Bonny (played by Melissa Pritchett.) With some women in the mix, Ludwig agreed Treasure Island would be a fine play.

"The reason is what attracted us to the theater in the first place," Boyd says. "That it is first, last and always a vivid form of storytelling. This gave us a way to connect with the original impulse to tell a story, while letting our actors play the sort of vivid characters who populate this book. The idea was that most would get the opportunity to play two contrasting roles. It also offers opportunities to work in a physical action mode not many plays offer."

That brings up another of Boyd's reasons for choosing Treasure Island. He wanted to bring in noted fight director Steve Rankin to stage the swordfights and other action scenes.

"I'd worked with him in Los Angeles," Boyd says, "so I knew his understanding of how the action moments support the story and characters."

Boyd proudly notes that the production's swords are being made by the same armorer who creates weapons for the Pirates of the Caribbean movies.

"James Black (as Long John Silver) carries the sword Orlando Bloom used."

Though Treasure Island was for much of 20th century dismissed by literary critics as a children's adventure story, not "serious" literature, the novel and Stevenson's overall output have gained respect during the past few decades.

"That (viewing his work as 'children's books') is sort of a passing view of Stevenson," Boyd says. "For many years he was relegated to a lower form of authorship — hugely successful, of course, but not quite the real stuff. But I think it's clear that idea is being overtaken, not just in popular culture but academic reactions as well. Stevenson nowadays is lauded for his achievement as well as his popularity."

Boyd sees Treasure Island's chief strength as a coming-of-age story about a fatherless boy who must sort through the various "false and dangerous father figures" as well as the "good uncles" the story provides.

"But mainly," Boyd says, "he has to find his own way."

Boyd says Ludwig's adaptation remains faithful to the novel while using the storytelling resources of an acting company.

"The first 25 minutes onstage is about introducing three levels of pirates. First comes Billy Bones (Charles Krohn), who is trying to get out of 'the life' — he's stolen the map and wants to make his last score before he retires. Next comes Black Dog (Jeffrey Bean), the emissary from the pirate life, calling Bones to account. Then Blind Pew (John Tyson), very scary, very unworldly, and representing the whole voodoo religion of the pirate lore, with his delivery of the Black Spot — the death warrant. They're three very interesting roles for the actors to play.

"And we've added, before any of this, a bit of a prologue, where we see all the pirates in their full-on pirateness, including the mysterious Captain Flint (John Feltch). That gives a taste of what their world is, before we introduce Jim and his normal life, which will be invaded by these pirate characters."

Boyd calls Treasure Island a "dream project" for both himself as director and Ludwig as playwright.

"It's let us give full imaginative rein to those things that drew us into the theater," Boyd says. "Big characters, sword fights, flamboyant language, huge costumes. It's a celebration of everything the theater does best. We don' t see that nearly enough. But when we do, it's overwhelmingly appealing.

"The rehearsals are exhausting but more fun than anything. We all go around grinning all the time. Maybe we're connecting with our inner child. Certainly with our inner pirate!"

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