Young Jim Hawkins has a simple question in the NOLA Project’s version of “Treasure Island”, which runs until May 27 in the Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden. Why do pirates spend so much time hiding and looking for treasure instead of just spending it?
Apparently he has a lot to learn about pirates.
There are a few schooners full of hardy, eager sailors ready to show her the ropes in comic adventure. Written by AJ Allegra Company members James Bartelle and Alex Martinez Wallace, and directed by Allegra, it’s one of the NOLA Project’s loudest family adaptations of a classic tale played in the garden. It’s based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1883 classic, and it’s full of rambunctious action, physical comedy, sea shanties, salty taunts, pirate schtick, and a few surprises.
Liam Gillen plays young Hawkins, who takes on the dreary duties of the inn run by his mother Ruth Hawkins in their hometown of Bristol, England. She wants a “five fish review,” she explains to Jim, pointing to a stream of jokes relating to more contemporary topics aimed over the heads of younger viewers. Wayland D. Cooper’s No-Good-Nathan has more important things on his mind, and he ends up gifting the Hawkins with a treasure map.
The promise of hidden treasure draws mother and son to the docks. There they meet Long John Silver, a ship’s cook with a bad leg. Jim lies about his age, and Ruth disguises herself as a man, and they set off for Jamaica with their hidden map.
Act 1 rolls to a great clip, and there’s plenty of action. The Hispaniola Pirates barely reach the Caribbean before encountering a crew of female pirates, led by Wendy Miklovic’s Margaret Pew. A battle royale between pirates is delightful mayhem.
There’s humor in Ruth Hawkins’ attempt to raise her son on the high seas, as sailors pass rum and she has to bite her tongue rather than correct her behavior among pirates. The bond between mother and son is highlighted in Act 2, as Jim is conflicted over whether to follow the pirates he idolizes or stand by his mother.
The production has a host of great performances, including Monica Harris’s Ruth Hawkins, who is fearsome and terribly motherly. As Long John Silver, Reid Williams effortlessly adopts the twisted diction of seafaring language and smoothly projects an unflappable opportunist.
The job allows all pirates to shine with distinct personalities. Christina Hathaway is hilarious as the vulgar and creepy Mercy McFoul. Bill Mader delivers a series of outrageous pantomimes as Fat Phillip. Elyse McDaniel’s Gentle Mary is an animal lover who faints at the sight of dolphins and rages against whalers. Ursula, played by stunt double Claire Frederiksen on opening night, is too dumb to remember port to starboard. And Keith Claverie steals moments from the show with offbeat asides and clarifying some things for the audience.
The action takes place on a wooden deck in the sculpture garden, surrounded by the rising tiers of the amphitheater’s grassy embankment. A sail and the upper deck of the Hispaniola are compact and effective for staging.
Act 2 breaks away, anchoring the emotional core of Jim and Ruth’s story, adding more sword fights and musical surprises, and there’s a practical twist that expands the story in a new direction. But the company stays the course as all the over-the-top elements cascade in the same direction. The only thing hackers can trust is providing an entertaining story, and the NOLA project has landed a bountiful “treasure”.