Remember the days when a proper girl could book passage on a vermin-infested cargo ship and not be scared silly by a murderous crew, forced to carry a knife, and locked in a cage by a raging captain?
Probably not. After all, these grim events and more take place nearly two centuries ago in "The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle," a 1990 adventure yarn by children's novelist Avi. Fans of his historical thrillers may find renewed satisfaction in Seattle Children's Theatre's vigorous world-première adaptation of "Charlotte," a seaworthy update of classic tales (think Robert Louis Steven-son) about treacherous voyages and tender protago-nists evolving from uncertainty to assuredness.
Don't know Avi? The Denver-based author with a compact pseudonym recently won the American Library Association's Newbery Award for his medieval mystery "Crispin," and "Charlotte Doyle" itself was a Newbery honoree.
From "Charlotte"'s opening scene - in which the heroine, standing on a Liverpool pier, nervously eyes a weathered gangplank leading to the palpable menace of the cargo ship Seahawk - SCT's engrossing production throws innocence to the wolves. Young Charlotte - age 13 in the book but a perceptibly older character in playwright John Olive's version (the play, at least, works much better if one imagines Charlotte on the brink of womanhood) - is bound for America after a term at a posh English finishing school.
Her father, a shipping magnate whose company owns the Seahawk, awaits on the other side of the Atlantic. His arrangements for a chaperone and several well-heeled companions to insulate his daughter from the ship's rough crew have fallen through. The anxious girl (played with soulful focus by the ivory-complexioned Jennifer Lee Taylor, who's in every scene) has no choice but to travel alone, under so-called protection of the superficially decorous Captain Jaggery (Peter Crook), who inspires about as much confidence in his people skills as, say, Malcolm McDowell's gallery of leering, lethal narcissists.
Still, a shipboard friend seems like a good idea. Even before embarking, Charlotte is nearly warned off by a chattering, moon-mad boy from the crew, Dillingham (a keen performance by Tim Gouran, a big hit with the kids on opening night), studied with open hostility by veteran sailors Keetch (Bradford Farwell) and Barlow (Charles Legget), barely tolerated by first mate Hollybrass (Keith Nicholai), and dazed by the ship's well-meaning surgeon, Zachariah. (William Hall Jr. does wonderful work in the part and may remind grownups of Scatman Crothers' avuncular but deadly-serious mentor figure in Kubrick's "The Shining.")
It is Zachariah who presses into Charlotte's trembling hand a long knife to keep under her mattress, and who volunteers to be her "final friend" - a seafaring tradition by which a hand-picked someone may speak for the wishes of a dead traveler. If that's not unnerving enough, there's Charlotte's encounter with a terrifying face in the shadows of a storage room, an event unconvincingly dismissed by Barlow.
The frightened girl seeks comfort in rapid recitations of Byron's "She Walks in Beauty" the way others turn to Psalm 23. Memory, however, always fails Charlotte toward the end of the first stanza, a problem the cultivated Jaggery attributes, with a hint of self-loathing, to the monotony of bobbing along a life-draining sea.
In short order, the situation aboard the Seahawk becomes clearer. Charlotte has walked into the middle of a plot that will test Jaggery's notoriously iron hand as well as the seething crew's mettle. She has perceived random clues around her as pieces of an overwhelming enigma, but the real story of "The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle" is what happens after Charlotte bravely begins putting those pieces together.
Once her fear of the unknown subsides, the entertaining mystery that has blindsided Charlotte metamorphizes into some-thing much bigger: an over-night education in class struggle, a sudden awareness of the vulnerability of men like Dillingham, Barlow, Keetch and especially Zachariah at the hands of capricious men of power such as Jaggery and, well, Charlotte's own father. (As played with near-apoplectic, white collar/white male fury by Peter A. Jacobs, Charlotte's dad provides valuable perspective during the play's final scenes about the full scope of Charlotte's ethical transformation.)
After a particularly brutal sampling of Jaggery's leadership that leaves the play's (by this point) most beloved character dead, Charlotte's rejection of entitlement becomes complete. She joins the Seahawk's crew in the most rigorous sense, donning pants, climbing the mast, getting used to bleeding hands and accepting with pride Jaggery's disdainful appellation, "Mister Doyle."
From this point, "Charlotte Doyle"'s literal and allegorical voyage develops mythic dimension, perhaps diminished a bit by a questionable, 11th-hour plot twist involving an accusation of murder. Nothing, however, compromises the bittersweet poetry of an ambiguous final scene in which we realize that Charlotte's story aboard the Seahawk - enacted far from the eyes of an unprepared world - will be written only in a few select hearts and kept warm in longing memory. Others may find that scene open to a more picaresque, happy-ending interpretation, though multiple clues suggest this drama, on its way out, is making a dreamier, emotional transition to a later chapter in Charlotte's life.
Developing a show that juggles transitions from suspense piece to class drama to privileged peek into Charlotte's inner life is tricky business. Besides estimable contributions from the source material, the cast and writer Oliver, loud praise must go to director Rita Giomi, set designer Carey Wong and lighting director Rick Paulsen for a production that works beautifully as an 1830s action tale on the high seas, yet also looks pleas-ingly expressive and moves rather lyrically at times.
The muted colors and softened, woody textures of the Seahawk's deck are instantly authentic. Great sheets of bulky fabric that ascend and descend from ropes suggest sails, but they also serve as hull walls and other necessary dividers within the ship's close quarters. Ambient sound effects by composer and sound designer Chris R. Walker are exactly right in volume and number, more subconscious than anything.
The production's greatest challenge - pulling off a hurricane sequence that even includes a spooky interlude of quiet inside the eye of the storm - is a real winner. Credit must go to sailing consultant Melissa Brooks (Orlando Bloom's stand-in during filming of "Pirates of the Carib-bean") whose choreography of on-deck behavior and movements over both calm and chaotic waters helps the cast considerably.
SCT knows what it's doing in recommending "Charlotte Doyle" to ages 9 and above. Some sequences - particularly the aforementioned, sug-gestively horrifying death of one character that left many kids in the proper age range sobbing in healthy grief - are far too intense for younger ones.
"The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle" plays through Oct. 24, Fridays at 7 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays at 2 and 5:30 p.m. in the Charlotte Martin Theatre at Seattle Center. Tickets: $12-$26, 441-3322 or www.sct.org.
Freelance writer Tom Keogh resides in the greater Seattle area and can be reached via email@example.com