BWW Review: TREASURE ISLAND at We Happy Few
The model that We Happy Few Productions has built and perfected over the last seven years is, for my money, one of the most admirable and sustainable of any theatre company in DC. Their goal is to make classical stories (traditionally Shakespeare, though they've wisely branched out of late) accessible to audiences by way of simple, direct storytelling. By utilizing smaller, versatile casts, succinct text preparation and adaptation, and straightforward yet dynamic design elements, they hone in on what makes a story endure by working the imagination. Every show by We Happy Few feels like an event, and I am especially fond of the energy they're bringing to Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island, their first-ever traveling production - an apt format for this particular tale. This review covers the performance on Monday, May 6th at 7:30pm at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop.
Director Kerry McGee has put together a swift romp built out of a cast of four, a multipurpose set, four ukuleles and an excellent cut of Stevenson's book. McGee and We Happy Few are no strangers to taking audiences on seafaring voyages in intimate spaces, as proven by their infectiously joyful 2017 production of Pericles at CHAW (which McGee acted in). Treasure Island is a considerably more action-packed work than that one, though, yet it never once feels crowded; on the contrary, McGee uses her space with specificity, guiding everything onstage together in a synced rhythm that feels almost like navigating by the stars. The assembling of the Hispaniola, the ship on which much of the story takes place, out of a few loose stage blocks and masts is our best indicator how Treasure Island will play in other venues: awe-inspiring and grand. Similarly, much use is made those four ukuleles mentioned above. I won't spoil anything, but keep your eye on them during the show.
McGee's cast, comprised of Wyckham Avery, Tosin Olufolabi, Paige O'Malley and Alex Turner, are fiercely devoted to our entertainment from the very start, engaging with and playing music for the audience before the show begins. (You'll be initiated into a very fun recurring gag that lives and dies on the audience's involvement.) Besides just being pure fun throughout, they're totally in sync with one another and their many fights, songs, set changes, character transitions and, my personal favorite creative use of ensembles, serving as set pieces (wait till you see Jim Hawkins hiding in a barrel of apples). Each of them plays a few characters you'll recognize if you've spent even a little time with the source material. Turner's Jim Hawkins is earnest and exuberant, a perfect narrator. He has the bulk of Stevenson's prose and he shifts between interacting with the audience and the other characters with a great ease, bringing us along on his journey. Wyckham Avery is famed villain Long John Silver, and she plays him with just the right mix of menace and joviality. The rest get to play a few roles each, all with great ease and quick, clever choices. Olufolabi is the coarse drunk storyteller Billy Bones, the noble Captain Smollett and marooned vagrant Ben Gunn. O'Malley brings a lot of gravitas to Jim's friend, the forthright Dr. Livesly, and her Blind Pew skulks with the best of them. This is a lively cast, with charms impossible to resist.
The devising and design crew have done a lot of legwork to bring all of this together. We Happy Few lives up to their name and then some - this is a space where you can feel everyone's contributions keeping the ship afloat. Special mention should be made of stage manager Sam Reilly (also credited for design work), who is as ever-present as the cast, helping shape the world. Reilly is in full sight, one of the touchstones of the company's commitment to the marriage of creating stage magic and putting craft on display. Reilly is credited with design alongside Jenna Murphy - huge props to both again for that remarkable ship design. Cast member O'Malley is credited with the costumes, which feature a number of wonderfully creative touches. The text is assembled by McGee and Kiernan McGowan, and it's one of the best presentations of a classic work on stage that I've seen in some time. McGee and McGowan are committed to the words Stevenson wrote, and have whittled them down to what amounts to 60 minutes of the most essential material. That isn't to say you're only in for plot - Stevenson was, to put it mildly, something of a weirdo. He wrote characters with odd, deep fascinations, and if nothing else, the inclusion of an aside regarding parmesan cheese should be applauded.
While Treasure Island may be finished at CHAW, the real test of its endurance will be at one of its upcoming venues. Based on what I saw, this is a show destined to be enjoyed just about anywhere. I have seen my share of We Happy Few's shows, and this one is one of purest expressions of what they stand for. You can, and should, witness one of the mightiest groups in DC in action at one of two unique locations over the next few weekends. Treasure Island plays again May 10-11 and 30-June 1st at Republic Restoratives (1369 New York Ave NE) at 8pm, and on Saturday, June 8 at Dwell DC (the alley behind the 1200 block of Florida Ave NE, between Montello and Trinidad) at 8pm. Tickets for the Republic Restoratives show can be purchased here; the Dwell DC show is a suggested donation.
Running Time: One hour.