As students we’re not unfamiliar with unread books on the shelves. I’ll admit right now that I’ve never touched Proust, and that I’m slightly less acquainted with Joyce than I let on. We tend to lie about books that matter (Capital in the 21st Century, anyone?) which is why no one ever bothers to claim that they’re huge fans of Treasure Island, the late 19th-century children’s novel by Robert Louis Stevenson. It’s not literary, it’s not influential – not any more than the other children’s novels that have survived from that era – and it’s not, frankly, good. Which is why it’s such a strange choice as the foundation of My Treasure Island!!!, a new play adapted from a recent novel by Sara Levine, which was inspired by Stevenson’s work.
Our Girl, the protagonist, has a good life: a boyfriend and a job and a kindly sister who refuses to teach Treasure Island to her students because it’s only for boys. Our Girl borrows her sister’s copy and becomes obsessed with it, outlining the core values of the story’s hero and pledging to live by them. She also buys a parrot, who serves as the framing device for most of the play. The parrot imitates the voices of the people in the narrator’s life as she acts out her interactions with them in what is essentially an over-extended flashback. It’s not clear why the story starts in the middle (after a while, the parrot dies – gasp! – and the puppeteer leaves the puppet to become the sister), but that’s hardly the biggest concern of this play, which seeps with creative desperation.
We’re meant to take away a message about adventure – how happy, stable lives may lack it, maybe. It’s hard to tell because our protagonist is kind of a monster. She neglects her bird, steals money from her boss, sabotages her boyfriend’s relationship with his mother, and, upon discovering that her sister has been dating their father’s boss, uses that information to tear the family apart. All this in the name of adventure, supposedly, although there’s no actual connection between the heroic principles that Our Girl has inferred from Treasure Island and most of her appalling decisions. In the climax of the play, Our Girl non-fatally stabs her sister (by accident, sort of, not really) and the horrors of her pursuit of adventure finally sink in. To her, not us – we knew this all along. Our Girl is not the kind of person anyone could connect with.
Feminist literature has a frosty relationship with psychological realism. The kinds of madness that fell on Margaret Atwood’s early characters, for example, could not identified by a psychiatrist. To be as kind as possible to Karen Woolridge, the playwright, we can infer that she wanted her character to follow on the same course, and to be insane in a philosophical way. But on stage, a sociopath is a sociopath. In a novel, we are re-assured and convinced of some sort of rationality by the trusted voices in our own heads, which are steered by the words on the page. But when a real person tells you, with her own voice, that she thought she was helping her sister by following her, barging in during sex, and reporting the whole thing to their parents – that’s not convincing. It’s disgusting, and the character is disgusting, and the things she says, therefore, are not charmingly misguided or philosophically meaningful, but disgusting as well.
Life can be boring, and adventure can be enticing. I happen to think that Treasure Island is the former, and that adventures don’t need to come from x-marked maps. This is the sort of thing we’re meant to understand at the end of My Treasure Island!!!, but the rational audience member will already have figured that out long ago. The rest is an hour or so of one woman’s unconvincing descent into narcissistic madness.
October 24, 2014 – November 16, 2014
16 Ryerson Avenue
Ticket prices: $17-$33
Contact 416-504-7529 or click here.