The Pirates of Penzance
Music by Arthur Sullivan
Libretto by W. S. Gilbert
Adapted by Sean Graney
co-adapted by Kevin O’Donnell
Olney Theatre Center
Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab
This production of Pirates by The Hypocrites (a Chicago-based ensemble) runs about 85 or 90 minutes “with a one-minute intermission”. It’s a highly interactive production. The action takes place on and around a dock, which angles its way across the center floor of the stage. There are benches and coolers all around the dock, two circular picnic tables topped with baby wading pools, and a “lifeguard” tower at the back. The entrance from backstage is covered by a large curtain emblazoned with the word “DUTY”. And every time any cast member mentions the word “duty”, the entire cast does this funny little bow in the direction of the curtain. The audience is invited to sit in the “promenade” area, meaning the benches, the coolers, the picnic tables, and even the stage. The only catch is that fairly often they will be instructed to get out of the way of the players. In the nook of the angled dock, there’s a pool of beach balls of various sizes, and other pool toys, which were bounced around by cast and audience before the show (and used as props during the show itself).
It’s been years seen I saw Penzance, so I’m not really sure what got cut or compressed, But the play moves along with great panache, and a lot of comedic interaction with the audience. All of the actors play instruments: during the pre-show warmup (which included “Sloop John B”; the post-show number was “Come Sail Away”), the distribution was four guitars, three ukuleles and one double-stringed ukulele, a violin, and an accordion. Later doublings included a clarinet and a washboard. Two stage managers (wearing red Lifeguard hoodies) made their way around the theater redistributing props and handing out and collecting instruments (including Ruth’s sexy lady garments which she threw to me when they were no longer needed).
The cast was excellent, but I particularly want to call out Shawn Pfautsch as the Pirate King and Mario Aivazian as Frederic. The musical peformances were also excellent, but here, too, I want to call out a couple of numbers. After generally high-powered numbers through the first act, the sudden pianissimo a cappella performance of “Hail, Poetry” was breathtaking. And the Major-General’s song “Sighing softly to the river” was embellished with an obbligato from the Pirate King (seated in the non-moving section of the audience) and a bit of musical saw from Edith. (I talked with Shawn Pfautsch after the show, and he said he started singing that obbligato when he was just one of of the pirates, but he kept singing it as the Pirate King just because he had already worked out the complexities of the performance.)
There was a talkback with most of the cast after the show. Some of the discussion centered on the improv nature of the staging. Pfautsch said that, in general, th show is about 98% scripted, but the improv can expand to 5% or even 10%, depending on the audience. He said that he particularly likes to play Katisha in The Mikado, because he can be as mean as he wants. At one performance, he made a really mean face, and did the two-fingered “I’m watching you” gesture at a four-year-old girl. The little girl, obviously a budding thespian, scowled and made the gesture right back at him, bringing the show to a halt. Each cast also has a repertory of “free skates”, little bits of improv that they can do one-on-one with members of the audience.
|Pirate King||Shawn Pfautsch|
|Pirate One||Brian Keys|
|Pirate Two||Eduardo Xavier Curley-Carrillo|
|Pirate Larry||Lauren Vogel|
|Iphigenia||Amanda Raquel Martinez|
|Music Director||Andra Velis Simon|
|Scenic Designer||Tom Burch|
|Costume Designer||Alison Siple|
|Lighting Designer||Heather Gilbert|
|Sound Designer||Kevin O’Donnell|
|Production Stage Manager||Miranda Anderson|