Book-It promises plenty of swashbuckling and swordplay as the young narrator Jim Hawkins and cohorts fend off marauding pirates in Robert Louis Stevenson’s adventure tale.
“If this don’t fetch the kids, why, they have gone rotten since my day,” declared Robert Louis Stevenson, after penning the rip-roaring yarn “Treasure Island.”
Stevenson’s pirate-infested story about an expedition to claim treasure on a remote isle did indeed “fetch the kids.” Though tepidly reviewed (by adults) when printed as a novel in 1883, it was popular and has long since been hailed a classic tale of derring-do and gold lust.
For many it is still a rite of passage to read “Treasure Island,” and identify with adolescent narrator Jim Hawkins as he tags along with the peg-legged Long John Silver on an exciting, dangerous trip to score riches. But in our highly mediated culture, the films based on the book, ranging from a 1918 silent short to a Muppets version, are now better-known than the real thing.
Preview on Friday, Nov. 25; show runs Nov. 26-Dec. 24, Center Theatre, Seattle Center Armory; $25-$50 (206-216-0833 or book-it.org).
Many “Treasure Island” plays have sailed, too. (Stevenson composed the pirate anthem that goes “Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum …” for an early one). Now a fresh, faithful adaptation is on the way: Book-It Repertory Theatre’s “Treasure Island,” opening soon at Center Theatre.
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Book-It promises plenty of swashbuckling and swordplay as Jim and cohorts fend off marauding pirates in this 13-actor staging. “There’s one really big fight, several skirmishes and some brawls,” reports Bryan Burch, who adapted the novel for Book-It’s show.
But Stevenson’s literary gift for tense plotting and detailed description in this classic and his others (notably “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” “Kidnapped”) are also essential to the show.
Born in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1850, Stevenson had weak lungs and was often bedridden as a child. As a young adult, he rebelled against his family’s desire that he become a lawyer and turned to writing. Despite his physical frailty, he began to travel widely and would pen engrossing accounts of journeys to Southern France; to California, where he pursued his future wife, Fanny; and to the South Pacific.
His own travels were inspiring, but perhaps the physical limitations that often kept him housebound and at his desk also contributed to his flights of imagination.
During a period in Scotland, Stevenson was drawing with his 12-year-old stepson Lloyd when a promising idea emerged. “I made the map of an island,” he recalled in the book “Essays on the Art of Writing.”
“It was elaborately and (I thought) beautifully coloured; the shape of it took my fancy beyond expression; it contained harbours that pleased me like sonnets; and with the unconsciousness of the predestined, I ticketed my performance ‘Treasure Island.’ ”
As he adorned the map with place names and hidden loot sites, “the future characters … began to appear there visibly among imaginary woods … they passed to and fro, fighting and hunting treasure, on these few square inches of a flat projection. The next thing I knew I had some papers before me and was writing out a list of chapters.”
Burch first read “Treasure Island” at “about 11 or 12,” but missed the “deeper moral concerns in it.” As Book-It’s production manager, he returned to it when the company was considering an adaptation. “After re-reading it I said, ‘Guys, this is so much fun!’ I was truly moved by how exciting it was, how much Jim has to go through to come from early adolescence to manhood. He experiences incredible things — murder, deception, treachery.”
Burch (who now divides his time between Seattle and Portland) had to “distill” the original text into a compact, colorful two-hour saga. “My fundamental approach was to tell Jim’s story from his own point of view. That helped me pare things down to the most memorable events he experiences.
“But the thrills are the trappings. The fundamental movement of the story is watching Jim Hawkins become a man. Talk about formative! Just the relationship he forms with Long John Silver as his surrogate father, their mutual respect and the moral ambiguity of understanding how people you like can do bad things, and you like them anyway …”
For a sense of authenticity, director Corey McDaniel says his team did “hundreds of hours of research” into such matters as “what sea trade routes were widely used at the time, how to sail a ship — rigging, sails, tying knots — and the hierarchy of a sailor’s ship, pirate codes of honor, weapons, currency and much, much more.”
Stevenson might well have delighted in this attention to and continued fascination with “Treasure Island.” He died in Samoa at age 44 of a stroke, leaving many well-read treasures behind.