Review: Lifeline Theatre’s “Treasure Island”

 Lifeline creates an all-hands-on-deck winner

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Lifeline Theatre presents:

Treasure Island
by Robert Louis Stevenson
adapted by John Hildreth
directed by Robert Kauzlaric
through November 1st (buy tickets)

reviewed by Catey Sullivan

“There are two kinds of men in the world, ” the impeccably honest innkeeper Mr. Hawkins impresses upon his impressionable young son Jim early on in Treasure Island. “There are decent, God-fearing men who honor God, King and Country.” And here, the good father stops in a fraught pause worthy of Pinter before darkly concluding: “And pirates.”

The moment loses much of its impact on the page, but on stage it captures the marvelous duality of John Hildreth’s adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s coming-of-age-with-pirates classic. On the one hand, this is a violent and sobering story thick with casual, brutal killing and unbridled greed. On the other hand, it’s rich with wry humor, even if that humor is often as black as Blackbeard’s beard.

Treasure_Island1 Directed by Robert Kauzlaric, Treasure Island is a complex adventure that skimps on neither bloodshed nor labyrinthine plot details. Although older children may well find the production thrilling, this is not children’s theater – the stabbings, shootings, stranglings and other assorted murderous goings-on are staged with nightmarish impact. (An early bloodletting scene that looks wincingly real turns out to be only the amuse bouche of the evening.) Moreover, Stevenson’s story sometimes seems to have as many threads as the massive ship’s rigging that stretches in great, ropey arms from stage floor to flyspace. As Jim Hawkins’ allegiances shift from pirates to decent men and back again, you’ll be forgiven if you start to feel that you’re watching an elaborate sort of ping-pong game between scurvy rapscallions and proper British gentlemen. The primary flaw in Hildreth’s adaptation is that characters sometimes get lost amid the plot’s complexities. Amid flashbacks, cannon blasts, and hordes of seamen both jolly and evil, it’s not hard to lose track of who’s who among treasure seekers.

The glorious exception – and lynchpin of this able-bodied adventure – is Sean Sinitski. If there’s a Chicago actor better suited to play the uni-ped antihero Long John Silver, well, we’ll eat a fried parrot stuffed with counterfeit doubloons and basted with rancid rum for Sunday dinner. Young Master Hawkins (Warren Weber, in a solid, if somewhat distant performance) might be the moral center of the story, but Sinitski’s Long John is its moral compass. And a fascinating, conflicted compass he is indeed. Stumping along on prosthetic designer David Rende’s marvelously realized peg leg, Sinitski is a father figure of surprising and unconventional virtue. There is indeed honor among thieves, or pirates as the case may be, as decent men and scalliwags alike enlist Jim’s help in recovering the long lost treasure of the late, unlamented Captain Flint.

The supporting cast is an exemplary ensemble. Kauzlaric accomplishes that signature Lifeline feat of making 10 actors seem like dozens, filling the two hours stage traffic with an epic array of buccaneering rascals and proper Brits. Chief among equals: Christopher Walsh as the rum-and-rickets-infused Billy Bones, a rogue whose “thundering apoplexy” proves the catalyst for the story’s rollicking treasure hunt. Also notable is John Ferrick’s Squire Trelawney, an imperious fusspot who manages to keep his wig perfectly powdered even while under siege in the torrid climes of a tropical isle. Chris Hainsworth’s villainous Israel Hands is a fine, blackhearted reprobate while Patrick Blashill’s Dr. Livesey is a suitably multi-layered good guy foil to Sinitski’s oceanic outlaw. Sea chanteys play a lively part in creating the on-stage community, and for that, Andy Hansen’s original music and sound design should be applauded.

Set designer Alan Donahue (with the atmospheric assistance of Kevin D. Gawley’s lighting design) outdoes himself, creating a wonderfully flexible world of ropes and planks and pulleys that easily shifts from ship to shore. As for all the brawling inherent to any story involving pirates, fight director Geoff Coates creates all-hands-on-deck fisticuffs of skull-thumping veracity.

In all, it’s been a cracking fine year for Robert Louis Stevenson: Lifeline’s Treasure Island is the second world premiere adaptation of the tale this season. (A musical version, penned by former Chicagoans Curt Dale Clark and his husband Marc Robin, debuted at Indianapolis’ Beef and Boards Dinner Theatre in April.) The book can be a tough read – Stevenson’s speech patterns might not flow so easily to those used to the 21st century vernacular. A trip to Lifeline will make it abundantly clear just why the story is a classic.

Rating: «««½

Treasure Island continues through Nov. 1 at Lifeline Theatre, 6901 Glenwood. Tickets are $30, $25 seniors, $15 students and rush tickets. For more information, call 773/761-4477 or go to www.lifelinetheatre.com

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