Hoping to recruit the audience members of tomorrow, the Denver Center Theatre Company is increasingly on the lookout for plays that appeal to family audiences. In the latest installment of its Generation Series, the DCTC and director Nagle Jackson have combined theatrical spectacle with great literature in a new adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island. What they end up with is a beautifully designed production buoyed by several fine performances but bogged down by a script that's long on talk and short on action.
The play begins in 1740 as Jim Hawkins, Esq. (adequately played by Douglas Harmsen in a thankless role) recounts his seafaring adventures to a club of British explorers. After a few minutes of talk (during which we adjust our modern-day sensibilities to the tone and tenor of Jackson's period production), we're quickly transported to Jim's life as a boy in 1725. At that point, teenage actor Jeremy Palmer takes over the role of young Jim, and Harmsen fades into the background to narrate the unfolding action.
Jim attains a maturity beyond his years by working in the rough-and-tumble confines of his parents' tavern. But his experiences there also imbue him with a persistence and resourcefulness that prove valuable later in the play. Bill Bones (William Whitehead), an alcoholic ex-sailor, is a frequent customer whose unpaid bar tab eventually earns him the outspoken contempt of Jim's mother, Margaret Hawkins (Kathleen M. Brady). Of even greater danger to Bill's well-being, though, are his own drunken boasts that he knows the whereabouts of buried treasure--a claim that eventually reaches the ears of Blind Pew (Michael Rahhal) and a small band of thieves who attempt to steal the old salt's treasure map. Jim and his mother are the first to uncover the map, though, and the brave young boy vows to end his family's miserable poverty by recovering the loot himself.
Enlisting the help of Doctor Livesy (William Denis) and Squire Trelawney (Randy Moore), Jim talks his way aboard a ship belonging to Captain Smollett (Bob Burrus). The young man and his protective triumvirate set sail along with Long John Silver (John Hutton) and crew to an island in the Caribbean. Once the ship draws close to its destination, Silver prods his fellow sailors to mutiny so that they might steal the treasure for themselves. But the greedy pirate's plot is overheard by Jim, who's hiding in a barrel of apples on deck. The ensuing struggle over both the treasure and the ship makes up much of the second act. That's also when we meet Ben Gunn (Robertson Carricart), a vine-covered, filthy creature who initially appears to be more beast than man. However, it turns out that Gunn knows where the treasure is--and, more important, knows how best to disarm Silver and his scalawags.
Palmer leads director Jackson's company with an admirable performance. Older theater-goers typically condescend to the budding talents of young actors, but Palmer's portrayal is emotionally appealing and thoroughly professional--an extraordinary accomplishment, considering that the bulk of the play's action rests upon the young actor's shoulders.
Carricart injects the second half of the drama with some much-needed energy; the veteran actor rushes about the stage while projecting his every syllable to the far reaches of the Space Theatre. It's a feat that some of his more sedentary colleagues would do well to emulate.
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Hutton is as likable a bandit as you'll ever find, nimbly making his way up and down staircases with the aid of a crutch and, later in the play, a peg leg. He also strikes up a charming relationship with his pet parrot, Tango, who roosts on his shoulder for whole portions of the show. The fact that both director and actor downplay Silver's role as the villain doesn't diminish Hutton's performance.
But the real star of this production is the DCTC's much-vaunted technical team, led by Michael Ganio (sets), David Kay Mickelson (costumes) and Don Darnutzer (lights). One particular scene change, which transforms the wooden stage platform into a sailing ship, earned generous applause from an appreciative opening-night audience. However, there are times throughout the show when one yearns for a few lighted candles or torches to break up the monotony of the action. Some well-placed sound effects echoing the treachery of life at sea also would have been welcome--as would a rewrite of the show's anemic musical score.
For as good as Jackson's production often is, it's just as often listless and static. And the same is unfortunately true of his adaptation of Stevenson's novel, which fails to hold the interest of younger spectators who will rightly clamor for more adventure scenes such as Palmer's and actor Mark Rubald's rope-swinging escapades atop the ship's yardarm. What a shame that audiences couldn't flip ahead in the novel or even close the book for restorative reflection along the way--a reader's habit that Jackson should have been able to anticipate and could have overcome with a more action-packed version.
Treasure Island, through March 7 at the Space Theatre, in the Plex at 14th and Curtis, 893-4100.