Sunday, January 30, 2011


Sex certainly not the first word that usually comes to mind when pondering Gilbert and Sullivan. I always visualize two white-haired, elderly Englishmen with stereotypically profound mustaches plastered to weathered faces, repeatedly congratulating each other on their combined cleverness.
And don't forget the monocles!

But at the Chopin Theatre, The Hypocrites' new production of the duo's
The Pirates of Penzance oozes seduction, charm, and danger.

Weird, huh? The concept of an edgy, boundary pushing Pirates of Penzance probably sounds odd to you if you are at all familiar with the show, but this immensely creative treatment stands extremely well on its own - apart from its notable old-style predecessors. The only item one is left wanting, and very rarely, is clarity. However, that is the challenge of facing twenty-first century ears with nineteenth century lyrics. At many points in this fine production, however, Gilbert's words are heard for the first time.

Upon entering the downstairs theatre at The Chopin, you are immediately confronted by a sizable, but by no means large, playing space. The ceiling is covered in big-bulbed Christmas lights, and the floor is crowded with cheap beach accessories. This stage also serves as the audience's "seating" area. I quote "seating" because you are not encouraged to lazily plant yourself, but rather experience and explore the space alongside the actors. Nothing is off limits. Even the wooden runway, diagonally placed through the middle of the room, is fair game. In most theatrical spaces, this freedom of movement and participation would be scary, and perhaps even a bit irritating - but here, the low ceilings, old carpet, and generally musky scent give the illusion of being a suburban basement -- the sort of basement that a 27-year-old might live in as he climbs the corporate ladder of the local pizzeria. Suffice it to say, a very comfortable place. However, youthful comfort nearly always walks arm-in-arm with uncontrollable rebellion.

Some of the older audience members faces were funny to watch as the cast serenaded them with pre-show songs like "I Feel Like Making Love" and "She Don't Use Jelly" - musical road signs saying "ABANDON YOUR EXPECTATIONS". No one looked offended; just largely bemused - like wide-eyed cartoon characters. At risk of sound cliche, this is not your father's Pirates of Penzance. However, if you bring him along, it probably will become his Pirates of Penzance. The appeal of this show is that wide.

Pirates is often treated as a grandiose celebration of what once was. An evening of stale joy. Dusty fun. Rigid chuckles. But here, with the help of director Sean Graney, Pirates has finally discovered cheap beer and sex...And it is having a kick ass time!
The amount of exuberance coming from this untraditionally sexy company of actors is instantly smile-enducing.
As an ensemble, they are fluid and supportive - while as individuals they are equally as (if not more) distinct and impressive. Christine Stulik's Ruth is one of the richest treats of the evening. Stulik effortlessly manages to incorporate the inherent physicality of her accordion (Oh yeah! They actors also act as the orchestra!) into the slovenly mannerisms of Ruth to tremendously funny effect. Her Mabel is equally as overblown and well sung - but this time, physically embracing the lightness of her ukulele.

Of the many songs in The Pirates of Penzance, the one that has most engrained itself into our cultural identity is undoubtedly "A Modern Major General". You know..."I am the very model of a modern major general...". And Matt Kahler as the Major General was chalked full of pompous windbaggery. His deadpan provided me with some of my heartiest laughs.

The actors cavort around the theatre, using every nook and cranny for dramatic purpose. Audience member's heads are constantly spinning to discover an actor right behind them, playing a clarinet or throwing a beach ball. That is where the danger comes in. While the audience is never picked to be "part of the show," the constantly changing focus rapidly throws the wallflowers into the foreground, and that uncertainty is thrilling to watch.

Visually the production finds unity in chaos. The room is filled with plastic kiddy pools, drink coolers, beach balls and glimmering tiki torches (Scenic Design by Tom Burch) - which through the subtlest change of light can be tremendously cheesy or profoundly beautiful. Both methods are utilized, and that truly is the strength of this production - the humongous contrast. The costumes by Alison Siple are reminiscent of A Midsummer Night's Dream...if The Dream took place at a 60's beach party...with punk sensibilities. The small creative touch that really tickled me was the Fresca. The actors just kept on drinking Fresca. I don't know. It was hysterical!

Are you a Gilbert and Sullivan purist? The last decade has seen a great deal of minimalized theatre - taking large musicals or plays and stripping them of unnecessary (and high priced) spectacle - Kander and Ebb's Chicago being the most notable. Graney doesn't really do that here. Instead he replaces the old elements with equally satisfying new ones. Christmas lights and swimming pools really do make for some fantastic imagery. And the same goes for the music. The abridged score with new arrangements by Kevin O'Donnell is played by the actors on acoustic guitars, ukeleues, clarinets, saws etc. - adding a new stringy bounce to the material. The music married with the actors and scenery in a way that opera and operetta do not frequently allow, and for the audience, fortunately so.

Do not misunderstand me - The Pirates of Penzance is not the first time that theatre has occurred amongst the audience, and it will not be the last . But this was the first time I experienced a musical (ok...operetta) in this way, and throughout the show, my senses were throw into a whirlwind of exciting confusion. To be engulfed by music, story, and deep color is incredibly dreamlike - and walking out of the theatre, I actually felt as if I had just awoke from a dream...albeit a wet dream. -Johnny Oleksinski.

The Pirates of Penzance runs through January 30 at The Chopin Theatre.