You're not alone. I mean, I love me some G&S, but some of those shows just seem to go on and on and on, especially in inexperienced hands. There's nothing more tedious than sitting through an amateur production of The Gondoliers or H.M.S. Pinafore. (Pacing, my friends. It's all about pacing. If it can't be good, dear God, make it short.)
Well, have no fear. The Hypocrites are here, with a fresh and zippy 80-minute production of The Pirates of Penzance, which recently opened at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass. Call it Gilbert & Sullivan for modern attention spans. The Hypocrites is a Chicago-based theater troupe known for its distinctive re-imagining of classic works. The recent acclaimed production of Our Town, directed by David Cromer, originated with The Hypocrites in Chicago.
Here, the troupe has taken The Pirates of Penzance, cut it down (the adaptation is by Sean Graney and Kevin O'Donnell), and whipped up a frothy atmospheric production complete with beach balls, picnic tables, and plastic wading pools. The atmosphere is true to the playful spirit of the original show, while adding some lovingly ridiculous elements of the group's own devising.
In truth, "adaptation" here means little more than a significantly truncated version of the original with a few modern references and sight gags thrown in. The result is short, sweet, and relentlessly silly.
The real fun here comes from the spirited and arch direction by Sean Graney, and the lovingly over-the-top performances from a cast of Hypocrites regulars. Particularly strong among the hard-working crew of ten were a lovingly mock heroic Zeke Sulkes as the pirate apprentice Frederick, a delightfully dotty Christine Stulik as both Ruth and Mabel, and an amusingly imperious Matt Kahler as the famed Major General.
The cast members, who also serve as the show's on-stage band, mill about convivially among the audience members, many of whom are seated on the stage and on benches surrounding the playing area. I'm not one to automatically respond to immersive theater such as this, but thankfully the A.R.T. staff saw fit to provide regular seating away from the on-stage antics. (I crouch, squat, and scurry for no show.)This particular production of The Pirates of Penzance is certainly not for G&S purists. As I said, the show and the score have been cut down rather severely, but this in itself is not necessarily a bad thing. G&S have a strong tendency to repeat refrains almost incessantly, most of which the production at hand has dispensed with, as well as turning much of the recitative into spoken text.
The score has been rearranged and modernized for guitar, banjo, flute, spoons, and the occasional woodwind. The musicianship, both sung and played, was for the most part serviceable, although the apostrophic "Hail, Poetry" was simply stunning, thanks to both the sotto voce singing and sensitive lighting.
On a final note, I have to say that I'm genuinely torn over the fact that this admitted crowd-pleaser comes to us under the auspices of the A.R.T. As you may know, the A.R.T. has come under fire for its overtly commercial bent under the helm of artistic director Diane Paulus. And this production of Pirates certainly ranks among the theater's more mainstream-friendly offerings. I mean, there's a certain amount of theatrical invention involved here, but it's certainly nothing you would call challenging or deep. At least it's not pretentious like Pippin, by which I mean a pretense of meaning. Pirates doesn't try to be anything beyond what it is, which is a rollicking good time.
But is that what a major non-profit, operating within one of the most august learning institutions in the world, should be doing?