A (feminist) pirate’s life for me

Arden Theatre Company presents Toby Hulse’s Treasure Island’

4 minute read
Many characters, epic action, and songs: the ensemble of the Arden’s ‘Treasure Island.’ (Photo by Wide Eyed Studios.)
Many characters, epic action, and songs: the ensemble of the Arden’s ‘Treasure Island.’ (Photo by Wide Eyed Studios.)

In an adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novel Treasure Island, Arden Theatre Company offers a heartwarming modern twist that brings both fun and a forward-thinking approach, delighting children and adults.

If you haven’t read the novel or seen Muppet Treasure Island, the story follows young Jim Hawkins as he is swept off to the high seas with a crew of sailors, including Long John Silver, in search of the late Captain Flint’s buried treasure on a far-off island. But trouble brews when Silver and other salty dogs reveal themselves to be pirates from Flint’s former crew, raising a mutiny against law-abiding Captain Smollett.

An original start

In the Toby Hulse adaptation onstage at the Arden, instead of starting with Hawkins at his home in the Admiral Benbow Inn, we begin with Emily (a plucky Eliana Fabiyi), a young woman dressed in a cheap pirate costume of the Party City variety and practicing violin (“Bach? More like blech!”) in her living room. Emily confides that, though she tells adults that she wants to be a businesswoman when she grows up, she actually has her heart set on becoming an adventure-seeking pirate.

Her imagination quickly overcomes her, and the walls of her house sweep away to reveal a pirate crew of five, ready to enact anything she can dream up. Emily becomes Jim Hawkins as the rest of the ensemble (Mary Tuomanen, Robi Hager, Tai Verley, Cameron Del Grosso, and Jamison Foreman) take on all of the other swashbuckling characters from Stevenson’s story.

Space for pirate women

Stevenson’s original has a hypermasculine energy, as his attentions focus on Jim’s coming-of-age story and a narrative that reaffirms the notion that only men could be the pirates of our imaginations. But infamous women like Anne Bonny and Grace O’Malley made names for themselves in pirate lore, and Hulse makes room for them in his lightly feminist adaptation.

Through Emily, Hulse suggests that women can be front and center in the adventure genre. However, feminine identities melt away as soon as we’re in the main plot of Treasure Island, so it becomes more of a matter of visual representation rather than a throughline ideology built into the text. Still, Hulse drives the point home without being too on-the-nose, aided by smart casting choices that put female-presenting actors in leadership roles throughout the play. He also manages to wrangle the epic action and many characters of the novel, though there are moments of inevitable plot whiplash from squeezing a rich novel into a compact stage package.

Perfectly sinister charm: Mary Tuomanen as Long John Silver. (Photo by Wide Eyed Studios.)
Perfectly sinister charm: Mary Tuomanen as Long John Silver. (Photo by Wide Eyed Studios.)

Tackling the action

Director Doug Hara charmingly renders Hulse’s adaptation, ably navigating the high-speed pace of the script. It’s difficult to balance Emily’s real world and the one that her mind concocts, but Hara guides us smoothly between those transitions. Composer and sound designer Alex Bechtel also helps to ground the audience in the occasional song, where the play’s themes, like following one’s dreams and being brave in the face of change, are lovingly articulated.

The actors of Treasure Island tackle the action with the high-stakes fervor and abandon of children playing pretend, taking the characters off of the page and into real life with ample humor and flair. Though Jim/Emily’s wants and allegiances change at a breakneck pace, to the point of occasional confusion in the narrative, Fabiyi never fails as the audience’s hero.

Tuomanen, an Arden regular, moves with a playful swagger as Long John Silver. He’s the villain who has us wavering between love and hate, and Tuomanen’s charm is just sinister enough to give Silver an edge without walking the plank into darker territory. Foreman adds lightness as the foppish Dr. Livesy (complete with styled wig), and Verley delights with easy comedic timing, particularly as a dying sailor stealing one last moment of grandeur in a final speech.

Tim Mackabee’s set of wooden towers on wheels is a clever way of establishing our many changes of place while creating the feel of a pirate ship, complete with a ship’s wheel made out of a frisbee, hula hoop, and plastic baseball bats. The addition of childhood toys and other household items (dust brushes double as guns, a cooking spoon becomes a deadly dart) keeps things light and helps to remind us that this whole world has sprung from Emily’s imagination. Costumes (Jillian Keys) are a blend of time-specific and timeless, and occasional touches, like a Dolly Parton portrait on a corset, are in the playful spirit of make-believe.

What, When, Where

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, in an adaptation by Toby Hulse, directed by Doug Hara. Running through June 9, 2019, at the Arden Theatre’s Arcadia Stage, 40 N. 2nd street, Philadelphia. (215) 922-1122 or Ardentheatre.org.

The Arden is an ADA-accessible venue. For specific questions about accessibility, call the box office or email [email protected].

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