Playwright: adapted by Mary Zimmerman from the novel by Robert Louis Stevenson. At: Lookingglass Theatre Company and Berkeley Repertory Theatre at the Water Works, 821 N. Michigan Ave. Tickets: 312-337-0665; www.lookingglasstheatre.org; $55-$85. Runs through: Jan. 31
Robert Louis Stevenson's swashbuckling-swabbies yarn is so perfectly suited to the Lookingglass skill set that it's downright shocking to realize that they haven't essayed it earlier. True, nobody could proclaim it a neglected classic: references drawn from the 1888 novel abound in our culture, from chain restaurants to grocery stores, but chiefly the 1950 film, where Robert Newton's robust portrayal of the wily Long John Silver forever defined our popular conception of "pirate." ( Merely uttering the word within earshot of any male will bring forth a gutteral "Haaarr, Matey!" in response ).
For a theater company faced with translating a plot-heavy narrative to the dimensions of a skating rink-sized stage precluding the intimacy evidenced in Lifeline's 2009 production, while challenged by the physical demands of replicating natural spectacle ( oceans, jungles, etc. ) in live performance, this could be a risky voyage. Let's not forget, too, the theater's location at the crossroads of Chicago's tourist district during the holiday seasona boon for family-friendly shows boasting familiar titles. Adaptor/Director Mary Zimmerman may have a Beowulf or a Bacchae up her sleeve, but don't expect to see it now.
What audiences can anticipate instead is an exemplary demonstration of what Lookingglass does best. Todd Rosenthal's sweeping scenic design puts us aboard a ship constructed as a giant hammock, swaying over the bounding main as its passengers scramble over roped rigging and stagger on the shifting deck. Silver's parrot companion is represented by one of Blair Thomas' ingenious puppets, voiced by various bystanders, and as in the Disney version, there are numerous seafaring songs performed by a roving band of musicians. On the starboard side, audibility has never been a priority with Zimmerman and her cohorts, making for widely scattered vocal projection and a few obstructed sightlines engendered by the auditorium's alley configuration.
Fortunately, the urban landscape surrounding the Water Works offers plenty of opportunities to purchase a copy of the book or to smartphone-search the Wiki to ensure arriving sufficiently versed in the story's sequence of events to permit unencumbered enjoyment of a hearty ensemble led by 14-year-old John Babbo ( whose string of credits already surpasses those of actors thrice his age ) as the young Jim Harkins and Lawrence E. DiStasi as a commendably cliché-free John Silver, who lead us through two-and-a-half hours of thrilling adventures guaranteed to send us home braying "Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum" with appropriate Jolly-Jack-Tar swagger.