Old Salts, Anew: Ken Ludwig's Treasure Island opens at the Round House Theatre
In Ken Ludwig's 'Treasure Island' Adaptation, Long John Silver Sets a Course for a Fatherless Boy
By Jane Horwitz
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, November 28, 2007; Page C05
Playwright Ken Ludwig credits Robert Louis Stevenson and his 1880s novel "Treasure Island" with inventing our idea of pirates. Without Stevenson's Long John Silver, he says, there would have been no Captain Hook and certainly no Jack Sparrow in the "Pirates of the Caribbean" films.
"That's exactly the myth that he invented -- the swashbuckling, fun, roguish people that you sort of root for in a way," Ludwig says. The messier reality, he adds, is that they were "pretty dirty, horrible people who had a very short life, because they were usually caught and hung."
Ludwig's stage adaptation of "Treasure Island," having its area premiere tonight and continuing through Dec. 30 at Round House Theatre in Bethesda, embraces both the mythic and the darker aspects of piracy, though not so heavily to prevent the theater from recommending the show for kids 8 and older. The script had its world premiere last spring at Houston's Alley Theatre and is to have a London production next year, the playwright says.
Ludwig's Broadway credits include "Lend Me a Tenor," "Moon Over Buffalo" and "Twentieth Century" (an adaptation also done at Signature Theatre). A year ago, the Shakespeare Theatre Company performed his rendering (expanded from an adaptation begun by Thornton Wilder) of George Farquhar's 1707 romp, "The Beaux' Stratagem."
"Treasure Island" is a very different animal from the plays on that list.
Blake Robison, Round House's artistic director, credits Ludwig's script for celebrating "everything that's fun and touching about the novel" but also focusing on young protagonist Jim Hawkins's "search for a father figure." That makes the adventure also "a coming-of-age tale with a real heart to it," Robison says.
"The quest for the father is all mine," Ludwig agrees. Though Jim remains the story's narrator, as in the book, the playwright created dialogue and "added some things to the story -- that's typical in an adaptation." He expanded on the boy's grief over the loss of his father for dramatic purposes: "It's clear that Long John Silver fills the role of his father. It's a very father-son relationship, though very complex, because of who Silver is.
"That's a great example of trying to make a play work on its own terms," Ludwig continues, "because it can't do exactly what the novel does, for a thousand reasons. . . . You need swift, dramatic ways to create the complexities that the novel answers in its own way."
True to his lifelong love of Shakespeare (Arena Stage did his "Shakespeare in Hollywood" in 2003), Ludwig has added a Shakespeare connection between Jim and Long John Silver. In the play both like to quote the Bard, which Jim says he learned from his late father.
Mark Mineart plays Long John and notes that his character initiates most of the quote-swapping. "They always occur at a time when he's looking for a more intimate connection with Jim, almost like a private joke . . . so the quotes are really, really useful," Mineart says.
"One of the things that's wonderful about the character is that he can exist on all of those levels at the same time. He's got a profound sort of affection for Jim, but then at the same time has no problem with killing a man in cold blood," adds Mineart [pronounced MINE-art].
The New York-based actor (who grew up in Annandale) said he had been offered a Shakespearean role that would have meant turning down "Treasure Island." His colleagues in a revival of the musical "Paint Your Wagon" at Salt Lake City's Pioneer Theatre Company advised him to skip the Shakespeare, Mineart says, because "you don't get to be a pirate every day."