Beautiful Design Only Carries Berkeley Rep's 'Treasure Island' So Far

There are many exceptional qualities to Mary Zimmerman’s adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre. And the first and most obvious is the famed American director's desire to catch a state of mind, a way of seeing the world that is peculiar to young boys. Jim Hawkins, the young protagonist of Stevenson’s classic adventure novel, is caught somewhere between despair (his father has died) and domestic servitude (he works in the family pub). Jim is both too old for his years and oppressed by circumstance. It is the perfect recipe for dreaminess and rash action.

We feel all of Jim's contradictory impulses in Todd Rosenthal’s beautifully designed set, T.J. Gercken’s lighting, and Ana Kuzmanic’s costumes. The ripped and ragged scrim, a shifting kaleidoscope of deep blues and oranges, captures the twin poles of Jim’s world -- the sea that promises escape and the sun that presages awareness and knowledge. Under Gercken’s subtle lighting, the dance between the two is as surprising as Stevenson’s crazy pirate tale.

The massive platform that bisects the stage is imposing, yet transitory. It’s a dock, a schooner, an abandoned military garrison. Each time it shifts we understand that for Jim, wherever he goes, the world is both overwhelming and in danger of drifting away.

That is part of the beauty of Stevenson’s vision of youth: we want to escape, to get away fast, but we’re also desperate for solid ground. For a boy whose home and family are crumbling, this dash to the sea for adventure, camaraderie, and treasure is a last gasp attempt for a freer, richer life. How many disadvantaged boys in America must feel the same, not to mention the rest of the world?

What’s clear in both Stevenson’s novel and Zimmerman’s production is that pirates are both the catalyst for -- and the barrier to -- Jim’s hopes. Without them he goes nowhere. But with them he is in constant danger of losing his soul and life. It is an achingly painful predicament, and one that Jim barely understands. His lack of awareness makes it all the more painful to watch.

Led by the remarkable actor Steven Epp as the duplicitous killer Long John Silver, the cast manages to fulfill our expectations of pirates while steering clear of pop culture clichés. The pirates look like pirates. But they look that way out of need, not sartorial whim. When they draw a sword or a knife, it feels precise and compact, as if they, like us, dress for what they have to do. It is the trickiest of the production’s many triumphs of design and grounds us in Jim’s confusion. Where he sees swashbuckling style, we see killers.

This is the reason we keep coming back to Treasure Island again and again. There are so many possibilities in this theatrical retelling of the classic tale -- a morally compromised adventure, fascinating characters, real ideas, and brilliant design -- and yet Zimmerman doesn't quite achieve dramatic forcefulness and focus.

We watch Silver brutally murder a man. That’s great, and Epp doesn’t stint on the violence. Yet for most of the last 20 or 30 minutes, his character doesn’t act, but is instead merely a function of a series of plot machinations that are mostly narrated. The baroque explanations of his shifting allegiances just don't work on stage. When Jim exclaims to Silver, "So you're changing sides again," the effect is dramatically deflating and not the revelation that the line should be. It's a waste of villainy and the reckless abandon so crucial to tales of youth and adventure.

Chained to Stevenson’s story, Zimmerman both reduces it to mere events and mires us in over complication. She’s capable of random moments of beauty, like Jim’s silent retreat after killing a murderous pirate, and the vision of a cave of gold. But the last third of the production feels more like a task to be completed than the end of a harrowing adventure.

The notion of adapting a literary work for the stage versus writing an original play is a strange one. They're the same act, essentially. Both involve the ordering of scenes, presentation of characters, and writing of lines. And yet there's a crucial aesthetic and cultural difference between the two. The adapter seeks to honor and preserve the material, whereas the playwright (at least a good one) is free to follow all the forces of the imagination -- even the most destructive ones. Zimmerman's production has ambition and energy, but her writing is reverent and flat.

From her forays into loose-leafed epics like The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci and The Arabian Nights, to her retelling of Jason and the Argonauts, Argautika, and her adaption of the 16th century Chinese novel, Journey to the West, Zimmerman has never had the natural verve of a storyteller. Ultimately, this auteur has the heart of a designer: she illustrates. By undermining the complexity of the material before her, Zimmerman shows no inclination to wrest Treasure Island from Stevenson, as a great artist would. Instead, she gives us a beautifully designed act of homage, but not a play that is new, wild, and necessary.

‘Treasure Island’ runs through June 19 2016 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. For tickets and information click here.