Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The Hypocrites' "Pirates of Penzance"

The Hypocrites’ Pirates of Penzance
W.S. Gilbert (Book); Arthur Sullivan (Music)
Adapted by Sean Graney; co-adapted by Kevin O’Donnell

Matt Kahler as Major-General with Other Hypocrites Cast
Dodging flying beach balls, stepping over ice chests and around kid’s swimming pools full of rubber duckies, and often stopping by the straw-roofed tiki-hut for a refreshment, wide-eyed audience members make their ways to sideline seats or just plop down in the midst of all hubbub on provided benches or central stage’s edge.  Parading about joyfully playing guitars, banjo, clarinet, ukulele, a washboard, and spoons is a brightly and wackily donned beach band who are also singing the likes of Huey Lewis, Abba, and the Kingston Trio.  With Gilbert and Sullivan either now turning over disgustingly in their graves or rising gleefully to join in the fun, Berkeley Repertory Theatre hosts Chicago’s Hypocrites in their updated, truncated, and uproarious Pirates of Penzance.

With contemporary lines and music spattered throughout, this tongue-in-cheek rendering of a classic that itself mimics both high opera and the politics of its time retains the basic, well-known storyline and its tongue-twisting, alliterative lyrics with highly memorable tunes.  Frederick has been indentured to a group of high-sea pirates due to his boyhood nurse, somewhat deaf and daft Ruth, mistaking his father’s request to apprentice him to a become a ‘pilot.’  Now turning 21, he is ready to skedaddle from this troupe of big-hearted pirates, who have a widely known reputation never to rob orphans like themselves, resulting in the seas being full of ships of orphans.  Homely, older Ruth wants to marry the boy; but he wisely hesitates at the last minute after seeing on a nearby beach a bevy of beauties (especially one named Mabel), all daughters of a rather pompous, proud, and preposterous Major-General.  Ruth gets jealous and alerts the Pirate King that the original apprentice contract says ‘21st birthday,’ which will not happen for poor Frederick for decades since he was born on Feb. 29 in a Leap Year.  Bound by a keen and exaggerated since of duty, Frederick gives up his newly bound duty in his police’ role to capture and kill his former ship mates and instead rejoins them, now bound to rob, capture, and kill his hoped-for, future father-in-law, the Major-General.  Many more outlandishly ridiculous twists and turns occur before the inevitable happy ending where all live as one happy family with a wedding is ready to happen.

This well-known, much-loved story’s built-in craziness skyrockets in this Hippocrates’ beach version as its highly enthusiastic, young troupe jumps, high-steps, stumbles, climbs, rolls, and tumbles while singing boisterously and playing with abound its orchestra of normal and odd instruments.  Zeke Sulkes is the so, so very sincere Frederick whose natural naivite, hopeless devotion to sense of duty, and head-over-heels love for the first girl he meets (other than the old nurse Ruth) shows in his wide-eyed amazement, his looks of boyish wonder, and a body of pent-up energy that seems to be jumping out his every pore.  His tenor voice does some justice to the score, but his real strength is in the overall rendering of this likeable boy who is out to discover love, lust, and life.

With a telescoping cigarette holder, rose-colored glasses, and ever-present guitar, Shawn Pfaustch announces in hearty voice, “I Am the Pirate King” as he leads with constant brouhaha his band of bumbling buccaneers.  The never-mean and always hilarious Mario Aivazian, Delia Baseman; and Royan Kent are not only pirates but double as the Keystone-Cop-like Police in blue rain slickers and striped, high socks. Matt Kahler especially stands out as the helmeted, in shorts and lacy sleeved jacket Major-General who struts, stutters, and sings his way into the spotlight each time he emerges from hiding from the vicious pirates.  Kristen Magee, Jenni M. Hadley, and Becky Poole are the military man’s chorus-line daughters who mostly giggle, serve as back-up singers to his lead, and prance around in tutus and flowered swim caps, being appropriately coy and silly.

Double-cast in the crucial roles of Ruth and Mabel, both would-be lovers of Frederick, is Christine Stulik.  The choice to have her render each with a strong, but high and piercing voice that often sounds right out of a Disney cartoon movie is funny for a few minutes but irritating and tiring for the full length of the short musical.  Brilliantly fun she is as she trills ‘r’s’ with full aplomb, switches from Ruth in curlers to Mabel in bows seemingly in seconds, and looks adoringly at Frederick with both the icky gleams of old Ruth and the starry orbs of Mabel.  But when she sings or talks too long with that high-octane voice, I for one just wanted her off the stage.

Overall, there is so much to delight especially young audiences in this Pirates.  Not the least are the outlandish choices for costumes, rendered by Alison Siple, and for set, designed by Tom Burch.  Sean Graney’s direction somehow ensures the chaos is not too-overdone, even as cast members are constantly moving audience members off benches, out of pools, and away from the stage just the moment they or other cast are about to hop into that very spot.  I will say that for me, the already-shortened 80-minute version of this Gilbert and Sullivan classic began to feel a bit too long by the finale.  The frenetic pace, purposely lame one-liners, ongoing shifting of audience, and overly silly shenanigans just got to be a bit old.  What was really funny in Minute 20 was decreasingly so for the umpteenth time by Minute 60. 

Having poured some water on what others may correctly believe is a blazing success, I can think of no better way to introduce a young family member and maybe even a teen to the antics and music of Gilbert and Sullivan than through this Hippocrites’ version of Pirates of Penzance.  Huzzahs go to Berkeley Rep for bringing something totally different from the normal fare to their regular and new audiences.

Rating: 3 E’s

The Hypocrites’ Pirates of Penzance continues at Berkeley Repertory Theatre at the Osher Studio, Center Street, Berkeley through December 20, 2015.  Tickets are available online at or by calling 510-647-2949 Tuesdays – Sunday, noon – 7 p.m.

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