Berkeley Rep and Zimmerman Do It Again

BERKELEY — Having the Berkeley Repertory Theatre (BRT) nearby is opportune indeed. This is one of the premiere theaters in the nation, and thanks to Founder Michael Leibert and current Artistic Director Tony Taccone, we have some of the best plays coming our way.

Currently they are producing “Treasure Island”, adapted and directed by Mary Zimmerman who has had 7 other shows at the BRT. Besides being a winner of the 1998 MacArthur Fellowship, she has staged works all over the country, in London as well as the Metropolitan Opera of New York. She is quite a force in the theater world and Taccone knows to engage her in his theater often.

“Treasure Island” is taken from the famous novel by Robert Louis Stevenson about a boy, Jim Hawkins (John Babbo), who witnesses all kinds of chaotic activity related to a hidden treasure. The action starts in Bristol at the inn of Jim’s mother (Kasey Foster.) An obstreperous, bedraggled, drunken Billy Bones (Christopher Donahue) comes looking for Captain Blackdog (Steven Pickering) and more importantly a chest. There is much chaos in the inn with the comings and goings of various characters and soon they are aboard the Hispaniola ship where Jim has been taken on as cabin boy. They are sailing to Treasure Island, which they ultimately reach.

The action is punctuated by Andre Pleuss’ original music, spelled with a classical violin sonata when the scene changes to an 18th century drawing room. The musicians double in stage roles when needed. They are the very accomplished Greg Hirte, L.J. Savin and Matthew C. Yee and Kasey Foster (who plays the mother). The crew and principals sing to the music performed on violin, guitar, mandolin piccolo and flute.

John Babbo’s Jim is excellent in all aspects, particularly his accent, his diction and his credibility as the naive young man excited about adventure but always a boy on the edge of danger. Christopher Donahue is also outstanding as he plays both Billy Bones and Redruth, the snooty servant to the Squire. Alex Moggridge plays a convincing Dr. Livesey. The parrot is cleverly manipulated on a pole, as done in Japanese Bunraku style.

But the greatest actor of the show is Steven Epp who is the sly and slippery con man Long John Silver. Epp performed Tartuffe last year at the rep. and his commedia dell’arte style is perfect for this show.

The set is incredible with its ship’s deck cantilevered from the ceiling and on an apparatus so that it can replicate the ship’s movement at sea as it swings back and forth. The deck also serves as the inn and the island. The imagination does not have to work hard to create these settings as scenic designer Todd Rosenthal has done it for us. Ana Kusmanic’s costumes are likewise fine, especially her 18th century fancy dress of Squire Trelawney (Matt DeCaro) who plays the perfect gentleman buffoon.

Stevenson’s novel is one of the most famous adventure tales ever written—not only for children, but for adults with wanderlust. People of all ages can enjoy this production.
“Treasure Island” was first produced by Lookingglass Theatre Company of Chicago where Zimmerman is a principal member. It comes right before the BRT’s production of a totally reconceived “Peter Pan” starting May 20 that was conceived by another famous name in the contemporary American theater Sarah Ruhl. The pairing of these classical works with contemporary theater concepts by famous director/writers is very clever on Taccone’s part. The Captain Hook of “Peter Pan” logically follows a story like “Treasure Island”.

“Treasure Island” at the BRT has already been extended to June 19. For info: (510) 647 2949 or go online.

© Carol Benet 2016
Carol Benet is a regular theater reviewer for artssf.com.
These critiques appearing weekly (or sometimes semi-weekly, but never weakly)focus on theater, dance and new musical creativity in performance, with forays into recordings by local artists, and a few departures into books (by authors of the region)as well.

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