Playing Long John Silver, Garrick Dean rehearses for the stage play "Treasure Island" at the Hale Center Theater in West Valley City, UT


Hale Center theatre sails the high seas with Ken Ludwig's 'Treasure Island'

By Erica Hansen
Deseret News

There is an entertainment treasure trove of Robert Louis Stevenson's book, "Treasure Island." With more than 50 TV and movie versions plus 24 major stage and radio adaptations, it is considered one of the most significant contributions to pirate lore.

Featuring well-known pirates like Billy Bones, Blind Pew, Long John Silver and the rest of the roguish crew, Stevenson crafted a pirate tale that is not only a rollicking adventure on the high seas, it also greatly influenced our popular perception of pirates, including: a one-legged sailor with a parrot on his shoulder, a map with 'X' marking the spot, schooners, the Black Spot and sailing tropical seas.

If you haven't read it, "Treasure Island" is a swashbuckling, coming-of-age story about pirates looking for, what else? Buried treasure.

Hale Centre Theatre opens its production of "Treasure Island" Monday, adapted for stage most recently by Tony Award winning playwright, Ken Ludwig, known best for "Lend me a Tenor" and "Crazy for You." The production runs through June 6.

"I wanted to write something for families," Ludwig said in a phone interview, "I have kids and I find that more and more, it's hard to find things that I feel great about sharing with them." Ludwig, who has written more than a dozen plays, scanned the shelves in his library "for inspiration. I came across 'Treasure Island,' and while there have been adaptations, there hasn't been one in ages. I knew this would make a fun evening in theater because the characters are larger than life and the story has such a good narrative drive," Ludwig explained.

But a tale about pirates on the tropical seas searching for a buried treasure presents interesting challenges.

"What I have found over the years is, theaters love having the challenges," Ludwig said. "They never come to me asking why I didn't make it easier to produce. They typically rub their hands together with glee and tackle these fun problems to solve, head-on."

Hale Centre Theatre steps up the to plate with not so much a play but more of an event, a spectacle, even an exhibition. The star of this exhibition?

Water. And lots of it.

There are 12,000 gallons, roughly 50 tons, in a tank 12 feet deep, located underneath Hale's small arena stage. Oh, there're also waterfalls, mist, rain and storms.

"We have the Shamu seats," joked Kacey Udy, Hale's set designer, "We do have walls and everything, and the audience shouldn't be getting wet, but there are a few seats that you might get a little moist — but that adds to the fun."

Incorporating the water in the high seas adventure is a massive undertaking in this regional premiere.

"Having water on stage evokes a lot of emotion, as we worked really hard to get the feeling of being on an island and being on the water," said Udy, who spent time in Vegas learning from the pros how to use water effectively and safely. "We needed a bit of help on this one," Udy said. "We had a structural engineer come out and help us with the tank. We went through the city to make sure everything is approved."

With the tank complete (built underneath the stage during Hale's last production, "Phantom"), they installed a hose. A few days later, the tank was filled.

The pool has a bubbling system to create texture on the water and a wave system, Udy continued, "We also have a wind system, and we are blowing wind across the sails and spraying the boat."

"The pool is heated and the water is filtered," Udy said, "The actors are in it so much that we wanted to make sure it was clean — We didn't want to risk anything."

Once an actor goes in (and they're all clamoring for the honor), they'll essentially swim "backstage," giving the illusions they've plunged to their deaths in the murky sea water. "There is a lighting system to help guide them and there is also a diver to help get them backstage," Udy said.

Once the actor climbs out of the pool, he'll immediately drop the wet duds into a basket and someone whisks them off to be dried. "There is only an hour between shows; it's tight," said Peggy Willis, costume designer. "We had to draw a schematic of who goes into the water, and where and what are they wearing when they do — do they have to shed their leather belts? Can the shoes come off? That kind of thing."

Hale's multiple show days present unique challenges. "It's just a quick turn-around," Willis said. "Some clothes have to be washed after every show because of blood packs. That's cutting it close." With two washers and two dryers, someone will always pull laundry detail.

There are also times when characters, such as young Jim Hawkins, leave the scene wet and return completely dry. "Jim gets multiple sets of the same costume, and three pairs of shoes," she said, noting that they managed to have most "victims" take the plunge barefoot.

The multiple sets of clothes, plus the double-casting for the 15-person cast, with three or four costume pieces each, "that gives us close to 300 costume pieces to figure out."

Another big aqua-challenge: wigs. "Only wigless people can go in the water since wigs don't look that great when they're wet," Willis said, chuckling.

"Peggy is great; she's kind of a pirate nerd," said actor Garrick Dean, one of the actors portraying the infamous one-legged pirate Long John Silver. "She's really gone all out for the show, and the costumes are incredible. Visually, it's going to be well worth it."

And that's pretty high praise from a man who spends the entire show with his left leg bound in a harness that Willis and her crew designed.

"My left leg is bound behind itself, strapped with a large velcro strap across my thigh and another strap that holds my foot against my butt," Dean said. "I support all my weigh on my right foot and use the one crutch to help me walk."

Dean and Josh Richardson (double cast) have worked with the harness since the beginning of rehearsals to build stamina. "When I first started doing it I could keep my leg in the sling, and be on the crutch for only about 10 minutes without having to sit down because of the cramping," Dean said, "Now I'm over an hour without having a problem."

"I take my leg down every intermission," Dean said, "but my right leg has so much pressure that sometimes my toes go numb."

Having done research prior to accepting the role, "I wanted to make sure it wasn't going to do any damage," Dean spends time at home each night stretching and doing some therapy on his over-worked right leg, "My right leg is going to weigh 100 pounds when this is over," he joked about his nightly lopsided workout.

In his 12th production at Hale, Dean has been in numerous shows around the valley and is emphatic that "this is the most physically grueling show I've ever been in." And not just for the Long Johns, but for the whole cast. "I've been bruised badly, knocked over from the sword fighting, and people are banging into crate and barrels — everyone is taking their lumps and spills," Dean said, "but still, everyone is really conscious about safety."

Which is its own unique challenge for the actors, because they're often on wet, metal floors.

"The floors have to be waterproof, but it also has to have traction," designer Udy said. "They're not wood at all, but we've gone through a lengthy process to make it look like a wooden floor — It was about a six-stop process."

Udy points out that the metal floor has "little gaps between the planks and the stage is built with a trough system and the water will gather and roll off and we're able to dry the stage quickly."

And if you don't think that will be enough to hold your attention, the actors will be climbing ropes, swinging the sails and crossing a 22-foot gang plank. "It's really high action and high adventure," Udy said.

If Ludwig's notes to the directors in the front of the script are to be believed — "The goal of this production should be wild, rollicking, frightening, breathless and moving" — it sounds as if Hale Centre Theatre is well on its way to a jolly good time.

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