Hypocrites’ Pirates sets sail at Berkeley Rep

Oct 23

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Matt Kahler as the Major-General and the cast of The Hypocrites’ Pirates of Penzance entertain the crowd at Berkeley Rep with their immersive rendition of Gilbert and Sullivan’s topsy-turvy world. Below: Christine Stulik (right) is Mabel and (from left) Jenni M. Hadley, Kristen Magee and Becky Poole are the Major-General’s daughters. Photos courtesy of kevinberne.com

The Hypocrites’ Pirates of Penzance is one part Yo ho! and one part Yo, ho! Which is to say, this is not your great-grandparents’ Gilbert and Sullivan, and what a blessed relief that is. No wonder Berkeley Repertory Theatre seized the opportunity to present this Pirates as part of its season.

Not that there’s anything wrong with G&S, but I have been tortured by Pirates and Mikados in the past and don’t welcome repeat attacks by operatic rhyme. But what the Hypocrites (an innovative and highly successful outfit from Chicago) do to G&S is sheer bliss. They honor the rollicking spirit, ensure the cleverness of the lyrics comes through and highlight the beauty of a melody when they need to. But, most importantly, they have fun with the material. This Pirates is not some fusty museum piece with every tarantara neatly in its place. It’s a party, and the generous hosts (the Hypocrites) make darn sure their guests (the audience) are having a hell of a good time.

The major-general behind the mayhem – for mayhem it is, complete with an in-theater bar that’s open the entire 80 minutes of the show, continuously hurled beach balls and audience members on stage (aka “the promenade”) constantly moved and shuffled by the cast – is Sean Graney, the founder of the Hypocrites. He adapted Pirates (with Kevin O’Donnell) and directs it (with Thrisa Hodits), with a huge assist from musical director Andra Velis Simon, who makes sure the actors are singing as well as they’re playing all the instruments (mostly banjos, guitars, violins and the like) while they’re running around the stage, dodging beach balls and audience members.

Graney and his team create an immersive, interactive experience (both big buzz words in contemporary theater), but it’s not strained. It’s exuberant, enthralling and manages to be high-brow and low-brow at the same time – a rich cultural experience and a drunken brawl. There’s not a lot of theater you can say that about.

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What makes Graney’s vision work is, of course, his merry band of rabble-rousers, aka his cast. When the audience arrives at the Osher Studio (a black-box space across the street from Berkeley Rep that comes in awfully handy while the Thrust Stage undergoes refurbishment until early next year), they find a party in full swing. The actors are all cavorting about with their instruments pretending to be the best wedding band you’ve heard in a while. The beach balls are whizzing through the air (you will get nailed by one eventually), there’s a line at the bar and everyone is figuring out the lay of the land.

There are riser seats on two sides of the performance space, which offers a more traditional way to watch the show. And in the central performance space itself, one-third of the audience sits wherever they want (benches, floor, kiddie pools). These seats, noted as “promenade” in box-office lingo, are obviously the most fun because you’re actually in the show and will be called upon to move at least once or, if you’re lucky, you’ll catch the eye of an actor and becoming a recurring laugh line.

Everything that makes Pirates of Penzance, well, Pirates of Penzance is here in a rough-and-tumble form. Ten people play a band of pirates, a family of British upper-crustians and a squad of policemen. They’re all incredibly energetic and barely stop for the show’s hour and 20 minutes (to be accurate, there is an intermission that lasts all of one minute). Best in brawl, sorry, show honors go to Christine Stulik, who does double duty as Ruth, the crusty nurse, and Mabel, the sweet object of our hero’s affection, and Zeke Sulkes as that hero, Frederick, whose sense of duty is even stronger than his love for Mabel. They get superior support from Shawn Pfaustch as the Pirate King and Matt Kahler as the Major-General. These people know how to have fun, sing with gusto, play with brio and tell a story with astonishing panache.

I’m not sure how G&S would feel about the interpolation of Wham’s “Careless Whisper” or Kelis’ “Milkshake” into the proceedings, but I loved it, but then again I love The Pirate Movie, an execrable 1982 movie musical adaptation of Pirates of Penzance starring Kristy McNichol and Christopher Atkins. The Hypocritees have done a much smarter, rowdier more respectful adaptation, and you don’t have to feel guilty for loving it.

[bonus interviews]
I talked to Hypocrites founder Sean Graney and members of the cast and creative team about their Pirates of Penzance for a feature in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
The Hypocrites’ Pirates of Penzance continues through Dec. 20 in a Berkeley Repertory Theatre production at the Osher Studio, 2055 Center St., Berkeley. Tickets are $29-$89. Call 510-647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org.

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