Thursday, December 1, 2011

DRINK UP ME HEARTIES - 'Pirates of Penzance' at The Chopin Theatre

"The most wonderful time of the year" in Chicago is probably late June. Winter in this city sucks. And although a basic understanding of geography would imply that the Midwest should lie temperately between Maine and Los Angeles, it's a whole lot more of a bitch than that. Thanks to some particularly off-color polar jet streams, Chicago winters could warmly be described as frigid. And much to my dismay, the theatre willingly falls face-first into that pit of icy, grossly commercialized, Judeo-Christian, anti-artistic depravity. Come Black Friday, playgoers are accosted by a rigorous onslaught of nutcrackers, reformed Dickensian curmudgeons, and cotton balls lazily whoring themselves out as virgin snow. (Note: Christmas is the only time of year in Chicago when a "bear" in a tight red suit is truly appreciated outside of Andersonville.)

But beneath the salted streets, in a cozy basement theatre appropriately reminiscent of a Prohibition-era speakeasy, a treasonous troupe of actors is ushering in the holidays the right way with mai tais! At the Chopin Theatre, The Hypocrites Pirates of Penzance is an eighty-minute non-stop beach party, raging with riotous laughter, catchy music, and cheap booze.

Last winter when I took in Pirates of Penzance the first time around, the ingenuity of the small company's counter-intuitive seasonal programming went right over my head. Rather than beating the proverbial dead reindeer, Pirates of Penzance is high-fiving its audience with tropical, umbrella drink-laden frivolity, the likes of which could only otherwise be found on some sort of awesome hipster lido deck.

Director Sean Graney has adapted the original, much longer operetta into a condensed, but considerably more satisfying, intermissionless eighty minutes. The fast-paced brevity of the performance makes for an experience of perfect length, and includes just enough dialogue to keep the plot clear and moving. Graneys additional quips make the funny hysterical, with a dutiful literary motif somehow becoming one of the heartiest repeated laughs of the evening.

The operetta is staged in promenade style, meaning the action occurs unexpectedly all around you. While there is a runway stage that crosses the room diagonally, the entire space is utilized. At any moment, your safe haven of quiet introversion could become a dance floor. This theatrical immersion is nicely complimented by Tom Burchs backyard set, which surrounds the participants with beach balls, swimming pools, tiki torches, and drink coolers a summer playground for the actors and audience.

The cast is adorned with vibrantly colored swimtrunks, flippers, and other varieties of garish-but-sexy beachwear designed by Alison Siple. And Jared Moores lighting design imbues the play with unexpected moments of solemnity amidst all the fun.

Kevin O'Donnell has cleverly reduced the typically lush orchestrations of Gilbert and Sullivan to a hodgepodge cacophony of acoustic guitars, accordions, and found object percussion. The result is a plucky, quick moving soundscape whose irreverence sets the tone for the farcically frenzied production.

Jamming out to the music is a tight, wild cast of ten. They run around the room with jovial childishness, playing with just about everyone and everything they can. But dont worry! The nature of the audience interaction is such that it never becomes intimidating or inadvertently victimizing, but more socially akin to a superbly witty kegger. Matt Kahler as the Major General has an ease with dry witticisms and one-liners and finds humor in the unlikeliest of places. Christine Stulik does double duty as the as both the aging matron, Ruth, and the puerile flower, Mabel. Stulik navigates through youthful promise and forlorn spinsterhood with skillful malleability and punch. While some voices lack the maturity to tackle opera seriously, this production is anything but serious and everything but mature. And its better for it! The majority of the cast has returned from last seasons production, and their newfound comfort and enhanced enthusiasm makes them absolutely thrilling to watch.

This is the second year The Hypocrites have produced The Pirates of Penzance, and I would not be surprised if it became an annual holiday offering. It is a show that, like only the best of drugs, demands repeated indulgences in order to once again experience that amazing feeling you got the first time. Pirates also makes for a shockingly good family outing. On opening night, I noticed four kids in the audience. Having never seen any children at The Hypocrites before, I was super curious as to how they would react…

Near the end of the performance, one small girl, probably about five years old, walked bravely onto the narrow runway stage as Rob McLean, the Pirate King, sang a couple of feet away. She stared up at Rob in dough-eyed rapture as he, perhaps unknowingly, serenaded her. After a few seconds, she scampered back to her mother, realizing that she, not the actors, had become the audience’s focus. It was an adorable moment; a breathtakingly beautiful moment; and an uplifting reminder to us pessimistic Scrooges in the audience that great theatre has the intangible power to reach just about anyone, regardless of how many TVs they own.

Not all children will react the same way, of course. The other three youngsters, while visibly engaged, sat the whole time. But the important thing to remember is that this Pirates is not an adult show, nor is it a family show, nor is it a twentysomething show; it is an everyone show. And there is something in Pirates for everyone to enjoy and appreciate.

Gilbert and Sullivan were writing in the middle of the Victorian-era, a seventy-year stretch remembered primarily for imperialism and widespread urban industrialization. So, with their comic operettas, the duo allowed their audiences a brief escape from the day-to-day banalities of cultural enslavement and the inhalation of borderline toxic air. Yum.

With their Pirates of Penzance, The Hypocrites are offering essentially the same service to those of you wishing to temporarily forget the daily doldrums of mile-long Starbucks lines, Outlook Express, and that most grandiose of Chicago villains, Rain-Snow. So strap on your onesie, break out the Ray Bans, and drink up me hearties, yo ho.

The Hypocrites' Pirates of Penzance plays through January 22 at The Chopin Theatre