In 1883, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island established a genre. Arden Theatre’s musical adaptation, opening next week, redefines it for ages 8 and up.
“Buccaneers and buried gold” stay central to the swashbuckling, high-seas, young-adult tale. But the Old City theater’s adaptation by British playwright Toby Hulse recasts 19th-century boy hero Jim Hawkins as Emily, a modern girl with an active imagination, a penchant for adventure, and an uncommonly reflective nature.
The adaptation also replaces main pirate Long John Silver with one Mary Ann Evans (played by longtime fan favorite Mary Tuomanen).
South Philadelphia resident Eliana Fabiyi plays Emily. Born in Brooklyn and raised in Baltimore, Fabiyi studied acting in college in Cleveland, came to the Arden for an apprenticeship, and stayed. At 26, she’s got a few years on her fictional counterpart. Still, she relates to Emily’s adventurous drive and free spirit.
You didn’t start out at the Arden as an actor. How did you end up there?
I studied acting and anthropology in college. When I graduated, I went out into the world seeking a stepping-stone. I landed at the Arden in a 10-month program for theater administration and marketing.
It was like a mini-graduate school year, a paid position, full-time, to learn how a nonprofit theater is run. If you’re going to be in this world, you ought to be able to wear a million hats. But I always knew I wanted to get back into acting.
How did you?
After the apprenticeship, I just kind of threw myself into anything I could do artistically. I stayed friendly with contacts I made at the Arden.
I performed with a group called Orbiter 3, which is no longer in existence, because they were like a born-to-die-in-four-years model. I work with a company called Ninth Planet that does a lot of experimental work. The last show I did with them was theater for babies — really, really young.
It was called Homeworld. It was an interactive performance in this beautiful white tent where everything was soft and at their level. It’s going to come back next year. We might go on tour.
How did you start performing at the Arden?
The first show I did was A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Someone else they had cast had to drop out. They needed someone to play a musical instrument. I play violin. I was called in, did the audition, and booked the part.
With the exception of The Bluest Eye, all the shows I’ve done at the Arden have also incorporated my violin. Treasure Island is my fourth Arden show.
How does the violin fit into Treasure Island?
It starts out with Emily practicing violin. It’s one of those Cat in the Hat days: She would rather be anywhere else, because practicing is so hard.
In that moment, her imagination is allowed to open up, and all these pirate characters spring from that. There’s this dual story happening. There’s her pirate character that she makes up, and the cast all play characters from the book.
What’s Emily’s age?
She’s about 10. That’s when things are still exciting, and you’re dreaming, having all these cool adventure fantasies, but, at the same time, you’re coming into that time when you’re starting to be embarrassed about those same dreams.
Does Emily’s gender play a role?
The cool thing is, it does and it doesn’t. I love that the play is blurring gender lines and norms, but it’s still a classic adventure. It’s more subtle messaging. All kids can really enjoy seeing themselves as pirates.
I would die happy if a bunch of little girls saw themselves up there, if they were really kind of blown away by seeing themselves in a role that they hadn’t always imagined. In my mind, feminism is just equality anyway.
What are your favorite parts of Treasure Island?
I’m not really a musical theater actress, but there are some really beautiful, big, musical moments.
There is the also iconic scene in the book, in the end, where Jim Hawkins kills a pirate. In the book, it’s the N.C. Wyeth picture of the pirate climbing up the mast towards Jim with the knife in his mouth.
But in the play, there’s a real reckoning with the violence of that act. Emily thinks, “Wow I just chose to kill this pirate: What does it say about me?” The choice doesn’t sit with her. There’s this interesting throughline about violence and what’s OK in games or in pretend and when does it start to become reality?
Does the play have a moral?
Emily has a monologue at the beginning and another at the end about how she really wants to be a pirate. That’s her dearest wish. Whenever she tells that to an adult, they say, “You can’t be a pirate. That’s not possible.”
At the end of the play, she realizes she can still be a pirate, or have a pirate spirit, no matter what she does. She can be wild and free and unbridled and a little bit mischievous, while being, say, a businessperson or whatever else she grows up to be. You don’t have to choose.
My favorite takeaway is, you don't have to grow up in every aspect. You can reconnect with that crazy, wild self and just do it, and just do what you're doing. That’s the spirit of Emily and the spirit of the story.