Posted by: strugglesome | November 23, 2011

Anchors Away: People’s Light and Theatre Company presents Treasure Island

It is surprisingly difficult to create good children’s theater. Aim too high in your content that you fly right over the wee munchkin’s heads. Aim to low, and you underestimate your audience of small humans and bore them out of their minds. It’s got to move fast enough to capture the interest but not too fast so the plot points get lost and the audience desires a snack instead. Music is often a plus, unless it’s poorly done. Laughter is ideal, as is a heart stirring message. Now that I think about it,  all these rules can apply to any kind of theater, not just theater for the little people. Curiouser and curiouser.

But luckily for the children of the tri-state area, People’s Light and Theatre Company is currently presenting their winter Panto, Treasure Island, and if it’s not the most elevated of musicals at least it’s fun as heck (I would use stronger language, but think of the children!). Extremely loosely based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic tale of pirates and adventures on the high seas (where are the low seas, exactly?) this musical mayhem switches the gender of the main character, switching James “Jim” Hawkins to a Jaime (Rachel Brennan), a plucky young lass with a yen to see the world and a treasure map in her pocket. Joining her on deck is a colorful cast of characters including the befuddled Squire Treelawnee (Tom Teti), his insufferable daughter Evelyn (Susan McKey), the good Doctor Livesee (Michael Doherty) and the incomprehensible Captain Smilenot (Pete Pryor,who also directed the work).  Of course, this lively group of treasure seeking adventurers doesn’t count on their humble crew turning out to be a pirate gang led by the dreaded Long John Silver (Richard Ruiz) and his parrot, Polly (Amadea Martino Smith), nor does Jaime expect her own mother (Mark Lazar, cross-dressing in a series of ever-more-impossible wigs) to jump in as a stowaway. But adventures lie in the unexpected, now, don’t they? After all, no one, not even those familiar with this popular children’s story, would have assumed that the motley crew would find themselves shipwrecked on an island in the Caribbean and transformed, with the help of a vaguely objectionable “native”, Mama Kura (Joilet Harris) into love-grubbing money-scorning human beings. In fact, the actual story itself is often seen as morally ambiguous and more then a little violent. Thank goodness we now live in kinder, gentler times.

But all jokes aside, the idea of love being more important then money is a lovely one to teach our children, especially in these financially strained times. And equally lovely is this goofy and re-vamped tale, told with music, enthusiasm, and no shortage of puns. Played expansively in the company’s Mainstage space, the brightly colored fully rotating set, designed by James F. Pyne, Jr, lacks all subtly, and that’s a good thing. Complete with swinging ropes and mobile broom closets, and framed in a handsome “gold” plated Proscenium arch, the aesthetic of the piece screams picture-book. No doubt this effect is heightened and refined by Rosemarie E. McKelvey’s brightly jaunty costumes, which coat the pirate crew (Justain Jain, Chris Faith, Andrew Kane and Jefferson Haynes, all game as anything) in rough and ready gear, but never resist a cheap laugh in the form of novelty boxer shorts or red and white stripped bloomers. Frankly, with this kind of show, bloomers of any kind are to be encouraged. And all of this is lit neatly under the benevolent beams of Thom Weaver’s lighting plot and scored with original music and and lyrics by Michael Ogborn, played cheerfully and well by pianist John Daniels.

It’s a pirate tale, so naturally there is fighting (courtesy of fight choreographer and assistant director Samantha Bellomo), flirting, and no shortage of arrgghhhs. Argh, as it turns out, can mean just about anything at all! This show isn’t short on education, in that respect, or audience participation, and while that might exhaust older patrons who feel themselves above the occasional group dance lesson or candy give-away, the truth is that entering into the silly spirit of things is where all the fun lies. And the large and talented cast do their audience the great service of entering fully into the material, as wacky as writer Kathryn Petersen’s script might be, and maintaining a respect for their young audience that is pivotal to making this style work. Brennan’s smart and sassy Jamie belts through her musical lines with skill and charm, and keeps the story moving as the lone straight woman in a room full of crazy people, and the culmination of her romance with Doherty’s Gumby-like Dr. Livesee is sweetly triumphant for both parties. McKey’s perfectly snooty Evelyn and Pryor’s dopey Smilenot charm with their slapstick, while Lazar’s Mother Hawkins and Teti’s Squire Treelawnee could be performing at the Catskills with their vaguely dirty jokes and wry enjoyment of their own humiliation. But of course, this is a buccaneer’s story, and the true credit of the piece goes to the pirates themselves, Ruiz’s dastardly Long John Silver, laughing with villainous glee over his treachery, and his crew of twirling, spinning, jumping and leaping pirates, especially Jain, who does everything the other guys do, but with one hand! Yes, the life of a pirate can be a risky one, with limbs and teeth sacrificed to sharks and scurvy, respectively, but hey, at least you have fun doing it, right? And this piece is, above all, fun, fun for the audience, and, one hopes, fun for the actors who expend so much energy doing it.

There is something to be said for a piece of performance that is exactly what it purports itself to be. It may not surprise us, or deceive us, but it still has the capacity to delight us. Especially those of us who, bedtime or no,  still dream of pirates and treasures and adventures around the world. People’s Light and Theatre Company’s Treasure Island runs from now until January 8th, 2012. Tickets are available here.

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