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When the Booty Is Laughs, 'Treasure' Is in the Bag

Family: Thanks to the company of experienced and good-natured actors, rowdy kids' mutiny is put down.

July 20, 1996|CORINNE FLOCKEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

MISSION VIEJO — A pirate's life was packed with danger and hardship. If the plague or the musket ball didn't get you, the menu ("Arrrgh! Hardtack, again?") surely would.

But the modern brigands in the Paper Bag Players' "Treasure Island" faced a challenge that would have set their predecessors quaking in their boots: a horde of little kids stoked on cookies and hovering a whisker's breadth away from total meltdown.

Aye, 'twas a frightful sight, but in their opening performance Saturday at an elementary school here, this pirate band and the rest of the crew of the good ship Hispanola sailed through with ease, churning up plenty of belly laughs for kids and adults.

Under director Bunny Lawson, the company (based in Mission Viejo) has built a following among South County families for its audience-participation shows, which encourage kids to get off their duffs and join the action on stage.

The involvement starts before the curtain rises: Youngsters are invited to bring a sack lunch (Paper Bag Players, get it?) and nosh as they chat with the actors preparing for the show. With a parent's permission, they also can get a minor makeup job from a cast member (faux eye patches, stubble and scars were the order of the day at this show); free plastic pirate rings complete the ensemble.

The preshow buzz really charges up the little ones, a mixed blessing to the cast. The actors had no trouble getting volunteers: At several points, when kids were needed to play extra pirates or crew members, the wannabes practically charged the stage.

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But all this enthusiasm generates a lot of noise, and there were times when the pacing suffered while the actors restored order (being in character helped; you'd be surprised how quickly an unruly 5-year-old responds when a grizzled, 6-foot-tall pirate stares him down).

It's a pretty chaotic environment for oldsters, but the kids seem to love it. Lawson's six-member cast was wonderfully flexible, improvising nicely when the young recruits veered from the scripted action. At one point, Capt. Smollett (played with gentle authority by Jim Cline) had to chart a whole new course to Treasure Island when his volunteer crew decided to row the longboat in the wrong direction. But, hey, it's all in the spirit of adventure.

In this 50-minute adaptation of the classic story, we meet up with young Jamie (played here by the ever-spunky Lori Barnes), owner of a pirate treasure map that, with the help of her uncle Capt. Smollett, will lead her to great fortune. Unfortunately, her uncle doesn't seem to be a grand judge of character, and he signs on a crew of pirates, including the dastardly Long John Silver (Jeff Mahacek) and his cutthroat henchmen Red (John Beane) and Crossbun (Jim Lawson).

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As mentioned, Smollett and Long John pad their numbers with a changing lineup of kids from the crowd. (Prospective pirates take note: If you are chosen, you'll have to "laugh out the sides of ya mouth like a pirate" and pledge to "take what's yours and never give it back.")

Long John and his crew waste no time staging a mutiny and stealing the map. With Jamie as their hostage and the stouthearted Smollett and friends on their heels, they search the island for treasure but are thwarted by hermit Ben Bulba (Marilyn Foraker). After a little plastic swordplay and audience-assisted spooking, right prevails over might, and Long John heads to the gallows. Or does he? The audience helps decide.

Mahacek is a convincing Long John, all swagger and boasting but with a subtle, good-hearted streak. Beane's Red is as hotheaded as his name implies, prone to throat-slitting gestures and funny asides (when his pirate crew lags behind, he spurs them on with: "What's wrong with you? We're going to get treasure! We're not going to the dentist!")

Foraker looks appropriately loony in her wild, knee-length wig and an outfit somewhere between "The Beverly Hillbillies' " Granny and Carmen Miranda. Her performance follows suit.

All the costumes look a bit thrown-together, which adds to the improvisational feel. Lighting effects are minimal or nonexistent, which is especially unfortunate when the actors tour Treasure Island; some great physical comedy gets lost in the darkness. But all in all, it's a grand romp for the entire crew.

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* "Treasure Island," Bathgate Elementary School, 27642 Napoli Way, Mission Viejo. Saturdays and Sundays at 12:30 p.m. (doors open at noon). Ends July 28. $5. (714) 581-5402. Running time: 50 minutes.

Lori Barnes: Jamie

Jim Cline: Capt. Smollett

Jeff Mahacek: Long John

John Beane: Red

Jim Lawson: Crossbun

Marilyn Foraker: Ben Bulba

A Paper Bag Players production, adapted by Steve and Kathy Hotchner from the book by Robert Louis Stevenson, directed by Bunny Lawson. Costumes and sets: Ronnie Husson. Lighting: Marge Hubers. Stage manager: Joe Foster.

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