Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years
“Pirates” at the Playhouse: Reimagined with Humor and Mayhem
For just over 100 years, the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company in London produced the comic operas of W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan just as they had when the company hosted their premieres. But times changed, and they did not. By continuing to do these classic, silly operettas just as they had been produced originally, right down to costume designs and sets, they may have operated as a time capsule, but the world around them gradually passed them by. This is sad, because – as has been amply illustrated at the Pasadena Playhouse – by being innovative, something like “The Pirates of Penzance” can appeal to a new audience.
There, The Hypocrites, an innovative company based in Chicago, has arrived with their version of this charmingly ridiculous show. It is anything but static, either in time or for the audience itself, who not only becomes participant, but must occasionally get up and move out of the way as the small, multi-talented company dances about. To be honest, Gilbert and particularly Sullivan suffer a bit in the process, but the end result is fun, funny, and connected to the contemporary audience this company is trying to reach.
For starters, you won’t recognize the Playhouse itself. Its interior has been transformed into a tropical wharf-like space with bleachers and picnic tables, kiddie pools, a tiki bar, and a pier all of which are occupied by both the audience and the cast who wades through them. The music, originally written for a standard stage orchestra is performed by ten singer-instrumentalists, many of whom play multiple parts and all of whom play one or more of the kind of instruments you can carry around with you, including the accordion, because they are all constantly on the go.
The tale itself is silly but fairly straightforward. Freddy, as he is called here, was apprenticed by accident to pirates at a young age and has now reached his maturity. As such he informs the Pirate King that he wishes to leave and will, sadly, being now loyal to his nation, soon be hunting his former shipmates down as criminals. He is urged to take along with him Ruth, the maid who brought him to the pirates, and who has been the only woman he has ever seen, but Freddy rightfully feels he ought to see what other women look like before agreeing to settle down with Ruth. Then the pirate crew spy the lovely daughters of a local Major General, Freddy falls for Mabel, one of the daughters, and much singing, tension and general fun ensues.
At the Playhouse this is all set as if one was at a beach party on the lake. The audience interacts constantly with the performers, some of whom play several parts (pirates double as the army called in to subdue them, etc.), and the entire proceeding is rather spectacularly fluid.
Standouts in this production include Doug Pawlik as a skinny, earnest Freddy, Dana Omar in the dual role of Ruth (with her gray hair in rollers) and Mabel, and Shawn Pfatsch as the Pirate King. Still, as is always true in this silly thing, the standout is Matt Kahler as the vapid and completely unqualified Major General, in part because he does a superb job with Gilbert and Sullivan’s most ridiculous and ridiculously difficult patter song.
If there is a down side in all of this it comes in two aspects. First, the style of the thing is frenetic, bounding from spot to spot in the performance area and making it sometimes difficult for the uninitiate to tell where to focus next. Second, staging the entire thing basically in the audience space is not necessarily the most advantageous to the sound system. Gilbert’s lyrics and lines are funny and the acoustics muddy the diction, sometimes significantly.
Still, it was fun to watch small children engaging with the performers in the midst of the storyline, and to get a feel for the free-wheeling “get up if you need to, the bar is open, this is a party” spin on the thing. Director Sean Graney and his merry band are most certainly having fun, and that fun is infectious. Nods also to Katie Spelman for the seemingly impromptu choreography. In the end, those who are Gilbert and Sullivan purists must turn back to Queen Victoria’s own response to this when new: “This time… We are amused.”
What: “The Pirates of Penzance” When: through February 25, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays Where: The Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena How Much: starting at $25 Info: (626) 356-PLAY or http://www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org