Review: The Hypocrites’ Production of ‘The Pirates of Penzance’ at Olney Theatre Center

You can’t go wrong. Just go with a light heart and desire to have fun as you easily unleash your connections to current world realities. What is it?  Well, the “what” is a wonderfully brash, go-for-broke, reimagined production of The Pirates of Penzance  from Chicago’s The Hypocrites at the Olney Theatre Center. The production is here for only a few short few weeks like great summer fresh corn-on-the cob.

Robert McLean (Pirate King) and Matt Kahler (Major General) . Photo by Evgenia Eliseeva, courtesy of American Repertory Theatre.
Robert McLean (Pirate King) and Matt Kahler (Major General). Photo by Evgenia Eliseeva, courtesy of American Repertory Theatre.

This Pirates is one cheeky take on Gilbert and Sullivan’s century-old satire aimed to laugh at Victorian middle-class values and the political structure of its day. And under the Hypocrites it is fresh still long after many a contemporary comedy is well past its pull date for consumption

The Hypocrites successes over the years have been so well-regarded that the theater troupe recently received a substantial MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective Institutions. The award came with the group’s constant experimentation with “the role of the audience, turning the traditional model of observing a show upside down for its creative, immersive adaptations of Gilbert & Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance and other productions including The Mikado. The Mikado is also playing in rotating repertory with Pirates that is being performed in repertory at  Olney Theatre Center.

The Pirates of Penzance is, simply put, a delightful, summer beach party themed, breezy affair. The production flies about with either a high-spirited family-friendly, back-yard beach party essence when parents, with a bottle of beer in hand and way too much afternoon sun, aren’t aware they are totally embarrassing themselves before their eye-rolling children as they dance. At another level, this Pirates is just terrific raucous fun.

Pirates of Penzance is directed and co-adapted by Hypocrites’ long-standing Artistic Director Sean Graney. Kevin O’Donnell is the other co-adaptor with Thrisa Hodits is credited as co-director and Andra Velis Simon as music director. As noted in program notes, Graney is crystal clear about his vision for a re-imagined Gilbert & Sullivan: “their operettas are typically presented as museum pieces, which has its merits but doesn’t capture the original revolutionary spirit.” He aimed to change that and easily it the mark.

In the Hypocrites’ comic hands Pirates is a Looney Tunes musical that remains somewhat true and intact to the original music by Arthur Sullivan and lyrics by W.S. Gilbert. If you are a G&S purist you will find that the story has moved to a different century and location with some other abridgements so that the production is about 85 minutes in length. Characters including Frederic, Mabel, the Major General, the Pirates, and the Police are all there and recognizable. The well-known delight of ensemble songs such as the police singing “Tarantara!” of “When the Foeman Bares His Steel,” “A rollicking band of pirates we” and “With cat-like tread, upon our prey we steal” – are done with comic flair.

For those less familiar with the Pirates of Penzance, well it’s a concocted story about a young British lad named Frederic (Mario Aivazian, a charmer with a knockout voice) who is mistakenly apprenticed to a band of tender-hearted Pirates with a “thing” for orphans. Frederic thinks his time with the pirates is up, but alas there are complications, let’s all them a paradox, for the Pirate King intervenes. (The Pirate King is played by Shawn Pfautsch with abundant self-awareness, calculating panache and a big, strong voice).

The paradox, it seems, is about one’s duty to rules and an unfortunate calculation about Frederick’s true age. As events proceed, Frederic spends time with an older maid Ruth and then meets the comely Mabel (a deliciously acting, terrifically voiced Kate Carson-Groner who plays both the effervescent Ruth and the bubbling Mabel). Mabel happens to be the daughter of a stuffy, Victorian, though very willing to “fib” about his status as an orphan Modern Major-General (Matt Kahler, a singer with the panache needed for patter and rhyming lyrics for the rapid fire of “Modern Major General” while never-ever taking himself seriously to the great benefit of the audience). The two fall madly in love with hopes to marry singing love duets with lyrics such as “Oh, here is love, and here is truth.”

Audiences can know it is in for something completely different the moment they step into the Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab space thanks to the vision of Scenic Designer Tom Burch. There are blinking tiki torches and strung overhead string lights (designed by Heather Gilbert), with a wooden boardwalk, a life guard station, coolers and even some some kiddie pools. There are plenty of beach balls to thrown about and the audience is expected to take part.

Seating is in regular risers, and for the more adventuresome whether adult or younger, there is seating in a “promenade” area which is a well-used dead center part of the on-going production. Over time, the promenade is a game of musical chairs as the audience and entertainers regularly move about whether they are plowing through imaginary seas, or strolling as “poor wand’ring” ones.

To add a carnival atmosphere to the pre-show happenings, the 10-member Hypocrites company is dressed in modern beach designed by Costume Designer Alison Siple, enthusiastically chirping contemporary summer love songs while playing musical instruments with abandon. As they sing, they play instruments that range from guitars, a clarinet and wash-board to name a few all while strolling about good-natured interacting with the incoming audience. It is truly immersive.

Matt Kahler (Major General) and the cast of The Hypocrites' The Pirates of Penzance.' Photo by Evgenia Eliseeva, courtesy of American Repertory Theatre.
Matt Kahler (Major General) and the cast of The Hypocrites’ ‘The Pirates of Penzance.’ Photo by Evgenia Eliseeva, courtesy of American Repertory Theatre.

The principal player and the full ensemble are all impishly spirited, playing their roles with a deep affection. They are seductive. The ensemble includes Brian Keys, Eduardo Xavier Curley-Carrillo, Lauren Vogel, and Mabel’s quite coy sisters played by Dana Omar, Tina Munoz-Pandya, and Amanda Raquel Martinez.

Pirates of Penzance will easily charm you with its devil-may-care attitude (kinda Fringe in the suburbs). It is also an opportunity to become a theatrical co-conspirators in a production. And know that the venerable duo of Gilbert and Sullivan were not harmed, but treated with care and affection.

Let’s remember that even during tough times, we girls and boys still wanna’ have some have fun.

Running Time: 85 minutes, with one 1-minute intermission.

The Pirates of Penzance plays through August 21, 2016 at Olney Theatre Center – 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, in Olney, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (301) 924-3400, or purchase them online.

Review: The Hypocrites’ Production of  ‘The Mikado at Olney Theatre Center by Nicole Hertvik.

RATING: FIVE-STARS-82x1554.gif

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David Siegel
David Siegel is a freelance theater reviewer and features writer whose work appears on DC Theater Arts, ShowBiz Radio, in the Connection Newspapers and the Fairfax Times. He is a judge in the Helen Hayes Awards program. He is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and volunteers with the Arts Council of Fairfax County. David has been associated with theater in the Washington, DC area for nearly 30 years. He served as Board President, American Showcase Theater Company (now Metro Stage) and later with the American Century Theater as both a member of the Executive Board and as Marketing Director. You can follow David's musings on Twitter @pettynibbler.


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