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Bon Voyage

Pirates, mermaids alight on the bay

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TREASURE TROVE Berkeley Rep stages a richly reimagined ‘Treasure Island’ to great effect. - KEVIN BERNE
  • Kevin Berne
  • TREASURE TROVE Berkeley Rep stages a richly reimagined ‘Treasure Island’ to great effect.

One show takes place under the sea; the other above it. Both are worth a voyage to the theater.

Visually inventive and surprisingly emotional, writer-director Mary Zimmerman's richly reimagined Treasure Island, adapted from Robert Louis Stevenson's novel, is a show that literally rocks, employing a stunningly engineered stage that actually swings back and forth like a ship rolling on the ocean.

It's just one of many delights as Zimmerman launches her wildly effective, subversively psychological pirate adventure at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. With Zimmerman at the helm, the production cleverly uncovers the buried beauty, pathos and human comedy in the classic tale of Jim Hawkins (John Babbo), an adventurous boy who befriends the one-legged pirate Long John Silver (Steven Epp) and embarks on a journey that will test his strength and transform him into a man.

One can hardly say that Treasure Island was a deep book, despite the depths of fondness many still feel for it. That's why it's such a surprise that Zimmerman has so deftly turned the tale into something so rewarding. Packed with poetic touches, this rollicking success is achingly lovely, frequently sweet, occasionally weird and a tad upsetting. Which is just as it should be. It is, after all, a tale of murder and pirates. Arrrrrr.

Rating (out of 5): ★★★★½

In Spreckels Theater Company's splashy new production of Disney's Little Mermaid, colorful, costumed fish appear to swim across the stage. Seagulls fly and mermaids frolic, huge waves splash and crash, and octopus women grow to six times their normal size (thanks to massive screened projections).

But of all the special effects unfurled in this elaborate, Gene Abravaya-directed production, the most impressive is the strong-voiced, agile and energetic cast. Led by Julianne Thompson Bretan as the adventurous title character, Ariel, with memorable turns by Mary Gannon Graham as the villainous sea-witch Ursula and Fernando Sui as Ariel's BFF (best fish friend) Flounder, the show succeeds primarily due to the delightfully cartoonish and moving performances.

Despite some glaring script flaws, an overstuffed score and a confusing, undercooked climax, this Mermaid delivers a level of onstage dazzle that is largely unmatched by any other local musical in recent memory. ★★★★

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