Strict traditionalist fans of Gilbert and Sullivan how many of you are there, really? are probably going to be put off by The Hypocrites' new production of Pirates of Penzance, which has arrived at Berkeley Rep via the Actors Theatre of Louisville with whom the theater now has a strong, ongoing relationship, and which is about to debut The Hypocrites' take on H.M.S. Pinafore next month. Inspired in part by the Sondheim adaptations of British director John Doyle, this Pirates of Penzance nixes the orchestra and gives all the actors instruments. And as director Sean Graney says, he hopes that Gilbert and Sullivan fanatics will appreciate it for what it is. "It's like the karaoke version," he says. "We offer up this material in a very loving way, and a unique way that they've haven't seen before."
That unique way includes a three-quarter round stage and part of the audience seated on and around the stage, on the floor, and on parts of the set the actors and crew move you temporarily if necessary, but it's all very loose, and if you'd prefer there is traditional seating on two sides of the room as well.
This is the first full production Berkeley Rep has put on in their Osher Studio, a half block away from their main stages, now in use because the Thrust Stage is undergoing renovation. And it works marvelously well for the Chicago-based Hypocrites' production, which has employed similar black-box spaces in earlier productions, like at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, MA. The only trouble is that the space isn't too well ventilated and has pretty low ceilings, so with a crowd and a lot of stage lights, you'll be shedding all your layers.
It's a brisk and lively production, however, that speeds by in 80 minutes with (literally) a one-minute intermission. The cast of G&S's funny musical farce is cut down to 10, and they're a talented and high-energy ten at that. Graney describes the thrust of the show as "Hey society, we have some problems let's talk about those. In catchy songs." And the basic plot involves one would-be pirate, Frederick (Zeke Sulkes), who falls in love with the daughter of a Major-General (Matt Kahler), named Mabel (Christine Stulik). He then tries to convince the father to let him marry the daughter, and meanwhile the Pirates of Penzance scheme to claim him back among their ranks, even though he was supposed to be freed of his obligations when he turned 21.
The very talented Stulik is delightful throughout in her two roles she's double-cast also as the hag, Ruth, whom Frederick scorns when he realizes he could have someone much younger and prettier. And Sulkes also stands out among the terrific ensemble, as does Shawn Pfaustch as the Pirate King and all of them, astoundingly, play guitar, banjo, clarinet, accordion, and xylophone with great skill too.
And, design-wise, Graney and his team went with "1982 Beach Party" as a visual theme, complete with tacky plastic kiddie pools nailed to the stage in three spots, and lots of short-shorts designed by costumer Alison Siple.
If there's one great success of a production like this it's to liberate the 19th Century stiffness of a venerated piece of English Theater and let it be seen in the most fun and gregarious of lights by a modern audience. Now doubt Misters Gilbert and Sullivan would be thrilled by the injection of joy and fresh energy into their material, even though it means tossing out all of Arthur Sullivan's lovely orchestral arrangements.
Purists, whoever you are, you can feel free to skip it. But as a piece of living theater that is no doubt a draw for young people (I ended up seeing it, accidentally, on Teen Night, and the young audience was clearly delighted by the chaos of the whole thing, and by a couple of contemporary pop tunes that sneak in), it is a smashing success.
Pirates of Penzance plays through December 20. Get tickets here, and as always, if you're under 30, you get half-price tickets with ID.