Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Loeb Drama Center at the A.R.T. Has Been Overrun With Pirates - To Everyone's Delight: Review of "Pirates of Penzance"

A Chicago-based theatrical troupe that call themselves The Hypocrites set sail for Boston Harbor with a mission to scrape the barnacles off of the keel of the good ship HMS Gilbert & Sullivan. They piloted (or pirated!) that vessel up the Charles River to Harvard Square where they slapped on a new coat of pastel paint and some glitter.  They now set sail from the Loeb Drama Center nine times each week until June 2 on a thoroughly delightful cruise to nowhere - and everywhere.

This delectable production is the brain child of Saugus-born Sean Graney, Artistic Director of The Hypocrites.  He describes his vision for the show in this way: "Pirates is completely hopeful, yet with such amazing precision of wit it manages to comment on the faults of society without the heavy hand of judgment."  As director for the show, he does indeed wield a light and deft hand.  Surely Mr. Graney must have been born close to the brackish banks of the Saugus River near where it debouches into the Atlantic Ocean.  So, in a sense he has come home - geographically and artistically.  His take on the often calcified G & S Pirates of Penzance is salty and campy - irreverent without being disrespectful. It is a pastiche rather than a parody of the more staid D'Oyly Carte productions of yesteryear.

The Pirates make their entrance.
Photo by Evgenia Eliseeva

Emily Casey, Sean Pfautsch, Matt Kahler, Ryan Bourque, Dana Omar.
Photo by Evgenia Eliseeva

In keeping with the vision and philosophy of A.R.T. Artistic Director Diane Paulus to involve the audience members as much as possible in each A.R.T. show, the Loeb has been transformed into a beach party. There is a dock that extends to downstage right, with action taking place in every nook and cranny of the theater.  Patrons have a choice of buying tickets to sit in traditional seats, or in the Promenade Section - basically on stage and in the middle of the action.  I chose the Promenade, and for the entire performance, cast members were promenading behind me, in front of me, gently moving me aside so they could mount the bench upon which I sat.  Other audience members took their place in beach chairs, on picnic chests or inside kiddie swimming pools.  It sounds chaotic, and it is - but in a fun way.  From my place in the Promenade, I could see Director Graney sitting on the floor taking in the frenetic action.  I could not tell during the course of the evening who was having more fun - Graney or the grinning audience members.  Each time I looked around at the faces of the men, women and children in the audience, there was laughter and sheer joy.

 In center Robert McLean (Pirate King), Matt Kahler (Major General), Zeke Sulkes (Frederic).
Photo by Evgenia Eliseeva

Pirates of Penzance has a plot that is as gossamer thin as the wedding veils that appear in the final scene of the operetta, but it does not matter.  It is the wit of the puns and the patter songs and the relentless energy of this wonderful ensemble cast that make this evening at the theater a day at the beach.  Basically, Frederic, played with panache and an eye patch by Zeke Sulkes, has been mistakenly apprenticed to a pirate rather than a pilot!  The fateful mistake was made by Ruth, played wonderfully by Christine Stulik, young Frederic's one time governess and nurse, who promised Frederic to the Pirate King, played by Rob McLean and then joined the group herself.  McLean's telescopic cigarette holder is a fun addition to the action.  Many years later, Ruth has fallen in love with the 21 year-old Frederic, who thinks he may love Ruth, but he is not sure because he has not seen another female face.  He has no way of knowing that this "Gothic ruin" of an Old Maid of a certain age is not quite as winsome as she claims to be.  Frederic's eyes are opened when the lovely daughters of a Major General show up.  The iconic role of the Major General is handled with appropriate bluster and roguishness by Matt Kahler, who is, indeed "the Very Model of a Comic Major General."  The daughters, played by Kate Carson-Groner, Emily Casey and Dana Omar, are bedecked in coral-like bathing caps and frilly petticoats and skirts..  Complications ensue involving Leap Year and an over-weaning sense of DUTY.

This truly is an ensemble piece, so allow me to highlight the other colorful members of the cast who have not already been mentioned.  Each cast member doubles as part of a roving band, with chimes, guitars, ukuleles, mandolins, flutes, clarinets, accordions and other noise-makers (like the kiddie pools) being employed to underscore the familiar Arthur Sullivan tunes, harmonies and rhythms. Shawn Pfautsch, Doug Pawlik and Ryan Bourque each add their own piratical idiosyncrasies to the proceedings.

The ensemble.
Photo by Evgenia Eliseeva

One of the beautiful aspects of this production is that it seems to be equally delightful to families with small children as well as to sophisticated theater aficionados and lovers of Gilbert & Sullivan.

American Repertory Theater
in Association with the Loeb Drama Center
The Hypocrites’
by Gilbert and Sullivan
in a new adaptation by Sean Graney & Kevin O’Donnell
directed by Sean Graney
Loeb Drama Center
May 10 — June 2

Go - bring friends and family.  Be prepared to be both entertained and tickled.  I hope you enjoy this show as much as I did.


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