While modern directors may be tempted to push an agenda or a heavy concept on older texts, The Pirates of Penzance is at its best in modern times when it’s taken as it is — a whimsical operetta that rhymes “lot o’ news” with “hypotenuse.” For over a century, it has remained popular because of its simple goal to entertain, and Chalice Theatre does just that with its lighthearted production in Arlington.
Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance follows Frederic (Steve Renard) as he celebrates the end of his apprenticeship to a band of pirates led by the Pirate King (James Maxted) and his nursemaid Ruth (Nancy Nowalk) on his 21st birthday. Now free of his duty, Frederic pledges himself to an honorable, law-abiding life. He wanders along a beach where he meets an ensemble of a major-general’s daughters, who all reject his advances save Mabel (Kate Kelley). Comedy ensues when it is revealed Frederic was actually born on the 29th of February, so technically he has a birthday only once each leap year. Since his initial indenture stipulates he must remain apprenticed to the pirates until his “twenty-first birthday,” he must serve for another 63 years. Whimsy and duty abound. It is considered a classic by today’s standards, but at its heart, it is simply a silly pirate tale.
This production succeeds because of its notably engaged ensemble. The pirate and daughter ensembles are intergenerational, featuring children, teens, and adults. Despite the repetitive nature of Gilbert’s book, the all-aged ensemble stays in character throughout — a feat for anyone, but especially for the students involved. This casting makes this Pirates all the more dynamic and alive — each actor in the company is engrossed in the world of the play, which helps audiences access that world too.
The world is enrichened further by Michelle Harris’ vibrant costume design. The costumes have a specificity for each character, even in the ensemble, and they vividly help capture the setting. The daughters’ dresses and hair evoke the Gibson Girls of the 1890s while the pirate apparel reflects the foolishness of these swashbucklers. Most notably, Nancy Nowalk’s standout performance as Ruth includes a transformation from nursery maid in the first act to striking pirate queen in the second. This metamorphosis is complemented by a costume so glorious that Nowalk should consider keeping it.
Even without the costume, Nowalk shines with superb comedic timing and a command of the stage. Nowalk makes Ruth’s arc coherent, comical, and charming. Catherine Aselford’s direction is at its strongest with her and the daughter ensemble, who similarly bring a lot of spirit to characters who are written as one-note. In particular, Molly Spooner Agnew and Molly Hogan lead the daughters with compelling vocals and generous acting. The other adult daughters excellently blend in with their younger counterparts, especially Melissa J. Dyer, who brings a childish joy to her role as Isabella that matches the excitement of her elementary school colleagues. Kate Kelley’s Mabel hits all the high notes, which is unfortunately all the script asks of her. It would be nice to see any of these women in juicier roles than the ones written for them 140 years ago.
The pirate ensemble is equally committed, and each pirate in the company was a comic treat. I found myself watching both ensembles far more than the main characters, apart from Ruth and the Sergeant (Jesper Sullivan den Bergh). Nowalk and Sullivan den Bergh match pace with the talented ensemble, and their performances are worth seeing.
Ultimately, the greatest gift of Chalice’s Pirates is the chance to see the multiple generations who perform it: there is something special about young and old coming together to perform Gilbert & Sullivan as our ancestors did before us — the casts change, the directors too, but the joy of being a pirate never will.
Running Time: Two hours with one 10-minute intermission.
The Pirates of Penzance plays through March 18, 2023, presented by Chalice Theatre performing at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington – 4444 Arlington Boulevard, Arlington, VA. Tickets ($20) can be purchased online and at the door if available.
COVID Safety: Chalice complies with UUCA’s COVID protocols. Masks are required for all audience members at every performance.
The Pirates of Penzance
Music by Arthur Sullivan, libretto by W. S. Gilbert
Direction by Catherine Aselford
Choreography by Randy Snight
Music Direction by Darin Stringer