Last night, I had the pleasure and good fortune of attending The Hypocrites’ production of Pirates of Penzance as part of the Emerging American Theatre Festival.
The Hypocrites is a Chicago-based company who, as far as I can tell from a cursory glance of their website and a read-through of their manifesto, specializes in quirky but honest theatre which attempts to glean some aspect of the human experience without taking itself too seriously.
And I can certainly say that last night’s performance delivered just that. Gilbert and Sullivan is HARD. The harmonies are ridiculous, nobody is singing the same part as anyone else, and each song has more words in it than Stephen Sondheim after a few martinis.
The other problem with G&S shows is that they are so darn funny. They are witty, ridiculous, and utterly irreverent. They’re also old and British. The danger of an American
company getting their hands on one of these productions is the instinct to take it to the land of stodgy, Earl-Gray sipping*, Queen and Country kind of theatre. Quite the opposite. Gilbert and Sullivan is basically Monty Python with music and should be treated as such. Otherwise, the jokes aren’t going to read to a modern audience, and you run the risk of not only boring an American audience (half of which has likely never seen Opera before), but also turning the entire audience off to the Opera experience.
Well, there was nothing stodgy about this performance. The entire usually two-and-a-half to three hour ordeal was cut down to a slim 90 minutes with one sixty second intermission (no, really, it was sixty seconds). The direct result of this was A) the energy was CONSTANTLY through the roof – there was simply no time for it to droop, and B) Once the story started rolling, it just kept on going downhill like a snowball from the top of Mt. Olympus. This kept the audience on their toes and right there in the action.
And the audience was literally in the action. The show was performed at the Oberon (the venue which also hosts The Donkey Show which, by the by, is TOTALLY worth seeing) and, in true Oberon style, was completely immersive. The audience was invited to sit on the floor, on the stage, inside the props (large kiddie pools on top of tables). We were thrown beach balls as we walked in and encouraged to keep them afloat. Actors would indicate via pointing where they were going next and, if there was an audience member in their way, that audience member had best move before she was (literally) run over by this tour de force.
Oh, and to make things a little more challenging for the actors, they were also the orchestra. They flitted about the stage playing their own accompaniment on a series of instruments attached to their bodies in various ways from guitars, to clarinet, banjo, ukulele, drums, concertina, accordion, violin, and (I kid you not) musical saw.
So, just in case you weren’t impressed with the singing or acting ability of these insanely talented individuals (and in that case, you might want to get your talent sensors checked), you could hold yourself content that they at least are capable of grand acts of musical conquest.
The play was funny, it had heart, and an insane amount of talent went into producing it. Despite the fact that I was drenching in a thin film of my own sweat by the time I reached the theatre (ugh, Boston, why did it have to be SUMMER now?), I still had an amazing time and would highly recommend you check it out.
Pirates of Penzance is playing through the weekend at the Oberon. For ticket information, head on over here.
*Not that I have anything against earl-gray sipping… it happens to be my favorite morning blend. I rather think that it should be reserved as the wheaties of academia than any inspiration for a show…