Long John silly
When Buck Busfield launched the Children’s Theatre of California (CTC) two years ago, he stressed that the new company’s shows would be professional theater featuring Equity actors and significant resources, just like the shows at the B Street Theatre.
Busfield meant what he said. Compare Treasure Island, which opens the CTC’s third season, with Busfield’s summer B Street shows Hate Mail and The Big Bang. Treasure Island has a cast of eight (six with union cards), while the B Street shows each had two actors. Treasure Island has fancier sets and costumes than the other two. This production of Treasure Island also features an original script by Jerry Montoya (the B Street’s associate producer) and original songs by Noah Agruss (virtually composer-in-residence at CTC).
Frankly, Busfield’s CTC shows have even become more interesting than the B Street productions. The latter seldom have pushed the envelope of late, though they’re always snappily staged to meet the established expectations of that theater’s large subscriber base.
Treasure Island has a smashing good opening. In the first scene, we meet Jim Hawkins (the boyish Erin Ailstock, well-cast) and buddies Randy (Anthony D’Juan) and Zack (Asuna Osako). In comes a mysterious stranger with a worried look (David Silberman), who proceeds to mesmerize the kids and audience with his tale of a distant island, hidden treasure and a special map—which mustn’t fall into the hands of his enemies.
It looks like we’re in a tense adventure yarn. When the enemies arrive, Silberman’s character dies at the point of a sword—a departure from previous CTC shows. (Silberman, playing several roles, actually dies twice and walks the plank before intermission.)
Soon, the show segues into comedy. The pirates transition from killers into cutups, acting silly as they ship out to sea. Long John Silver (versatile Michael Stevenson) starts out menacing and charming, as Long John does in Robert Louis Stevenson’s book. The added humorous dimension doesn’t fit in so well. Actress Jamie Jones, as pirate Black Dog, gives a similarly two-tone performance.
As for the songs, I liked them, as I’ve liked all the music Agruss has written for CTC shows. But the songs don’t advance the story much in this production, mostly because the show keeps changing direction. Shakespeare proved that laughter and dreadful deeds can co-exist when he put the porter’s darkly humorous monologue directly after Macbeth kills Duncan in his bed, but the contrast doesn’t work well in this production.
Nonetheless, Treasure Island has much to recommend it, including Nancy Pipkin’s lovely pirate costumes and Ron Madonia’s scenic design, which makes the stage look bigger than it really is.