The Pirates of Penzance

May 22, 2013

in Musicals, Operettas, Plays

Operetta (1879)

Music by Arthur Sullivan
Libretto by W. S. Gilbert

New adaptation by Sean Graney, Kevin O’Donnell
A production by The Hypocrites

Arrangements by Kevin O’Donnell
Directed by Sean Graney

American Repertory Theatre
Harvard Square
Cambridge, MA

May 10 – June 2, 2013

Set Design: Tom Burch, Costume Design: Alison Siple, Lighting Design: Jared Moore, Sound Design: Darby Smotherman, Properties Design: Maria DeFabo, Music Director: Andra Velis Simon, Stage Manager: Miranda Anderson, Choreography: Katie Spelman, Vocal Director: Andra Velis Simon

With Robert McLean (Pirate King/Sergeant), Matt Kahler (Major General/Samuel), Zeke Sulkes (Frederic), Christine Stulik (Ruth/Mabel); Ensemble: Ryan Bourque, Kate Carson-Groner, Emily Casey, Dana Omar, Doug Pawlik, Shawn Pfautsch

Zeke Sulkes as Frederic,  Christine Stulik as Mabel in 'The Pirates of Penzance'

Zeke Sulkes as Frederic
Christine Stulik as Mabel
in “The Pirates of Penzance”
Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva
Courtesy American Repertory Theater

A infectiously rambunctious version of the Gilbert and Sullivan classic, abbreviated, but still seeming full, and done with musicality and stageworthiness by a troupe wielding guitars, banjos, ukeleles, spoons, washboards, and lots of beach balls.

Poor Frederic, who has been brought to the pirates by Ruth, his hard-of-hearing nurse of yore, who mistook what his father had requested – that she make him a “pilot” – and instead made him a “pirate.” He is now on the verge of his twenty-first birthday and ready to be released from them. But he is duty-bound to the pirates until then and, when the Major General and his daughters, including the lovely Mabel, show up and challenge the pirates, he is thrown, by his adherence to duty, into a quandary. Add a troupe of police and a recalculation of birthdays by leap years, and you get the gist of the mad plot.

What a fabulously wild production this is.

It is very much in keeping with the tradition of producing alternative, and sometimes highly lightened or attenuated, versions of classics, that the ART’s artistic director, Diane Paulus, has carved out in the last few years. This production, however, is one of the best of that genre that I have seen there. It is wittily done, at the same time that it is beautifully anarchic, and tons of fun.

… it provides its musical accompaniment through a series of instruments played by the cast. Guitars, a banjo, a ukelele, spoons, a violin, a washboard, and several other things appear from various corners of the room.

There is also something beautifully insightful in this take on Gilbert and Sullivan, whose works are traditionally produced in a veddy British, constrained, though entertaining, format. That sort of production creates a kind of humor that leaks sideways from its strictures. What makes much of British humor distinctive is its capacity to create absurdity in the midst of formality. One only has to watch a few minutes of John Cleese as Basil in Fawlty Towers to get the gist of that kind of humor. Gilbert and Sullivan productions typically ride on the same wave.

The Hypocrites, which comes from Chicago with this production, brings out what is really the inner Marx Brothers of Gilbert and Sullivan. The Marx Brothers also operated within constrained contexts and their humor is a testament to how far anarchy can go within them. Margaret Dumont’s stuffy foils for Groucho are as much a part of the Marx Brothers setup as is the crazy give and take between Groucho, Chico and Harpo.

The audience is encouraged to wander around and to sit on the floor, in the set’s plastic pools, wherever.

In this Pirates of Penzance, the wildness is everywhere. The audience is encouraged to wander around if so desired and people wind up sitting on the floor, in plastic pools, wherever. The show begins with the cast bouncing beach balls back and forth with the audience and generally creating a ruckus. It’s a great setup and gets everyone involved early on.

Frederick Hobbs, James Hay and Bertha Lewis in 'The Pirates of Penzance,' 1919

Frederick Hobbs, James Hay and Bertha Lewis
in “The Pirates of Penzance,” 1919.

But, were this production all a matter of that sort of vaudeville gimmicks, it would not be as good as it is. In fact, the quality of acting, and of singing and of playing of music, is very adept, and the high level of performance that emerges through the chaos is also a wonderful counterbalance to its random energy.

The production is highly inventive in several ways, but, most distinctively, it provides its musical accompaniment through a series of instruments played by the cast. Guitars, a banjo, a ukelele, spoons, a violin, a washboard, and several other things appear from various corners of the room. And the singing is beautifully done.

The Hypocrites, which comes from Chicago with this production, brings out what is really the inner Marx Brothers of Gilbert and Sullivan.

Though abbreviated – the show only runs 80 minutes, with a one minute (no joke) intermission – it does not seem hampered by its brevity. The songs, though seeming shorter, are pretty much there in their original formats, so one actually gets a Gilbert and Sullivan production, not just a production that carries the title and loose association.

Robert McLean as the Pirate King, Matt Kahler as the Major General in 'The Pirates of Penzance'

Robert McLean as the Pirate King
Matt Kahler as the Major General
in “The Pirates of Penzance”
Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva
Courtesy American Repertory Theater

Interestingly, the characters act and sing with British accents. That is obviously considered one of the constraints worth keeping; it works, and seems perfectly appropriate.

The actors, many of whom double as musicians, are very good all around. They also seem to be having a great time. This was their second performance of the day and their energies seemed not diminished at all.

This kind of breaking of the theatrical wall – it was done in a fluid, almost amoebic, theatre of the round – works very well, and the ART is to be commended for supporting and promoting this innovative production. And, of course, kudos to The Hypocrites, who created these innovations and brought to it their delightful visions, skills and energies.

– BADMan

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