Hypocrites’ Pirates sets sail at Berkeley Rep

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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.

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.

Yo to the Ho! Pirates rock in Penzance

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John Paul Gonzalez (far right) as Frederic proclaims his love and his loathing for his fellow pirates and their life of crime in the Berkeley Playhouse production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance, a rock update of the operetta classic. Below: Rana Weber is nursemaid Ruth, explaining to the pirates how Frederic, her charge, ended up with pirates instead of a pilot, as was intended. Photos by Larry Abel

Singing pirates automatically make me think of two things: the original Pirates of the Caribbean ride in Disneyland with their rousing “Yo Ho (A Pirate’s Life for Me)” and the dreadful and utterly loveable 1982 movie musical flop The Pirate Movie starring Kristy McNichol and Christopher Atkins as Mabel and Frederic, respectively, in a pop-rock adaptation of The Pirates of Penzance. Along with Grease 2 (also 1982), this is one of the worst movie musicals ever and, also like Grease 2, one of my all-time favorites. For a taste of The Pirate Movie, see the videos below. Would that I could show you the whole, terrible thing. We’d have so much fun.

I’m thinking about singing pirates because I had the pleasure of seeing Berkeley Playhouse’s production of The Pirates of Penzance this weekend. If Berkeley Playhouse is not on your radar because you think it’s a kids theater, you should think again. The Playhouse’s professional season produces shows for the entire family, and they do mean entire. Adults can have as much fun (if not more) than the kids. They hire some fantastic directors such as, in this case, Jon Tracy, who turns Gilbert and Sullivan’s 1879 operetta into a high-energy rock musical.

Without straining too hard, musical director Jonathan Fadner (on guitar and keyboards) and his other three players turn the score into a legitimate pop-rock score. The only difference between this and, say, Rent, is the abundance of clever, tongue-twisting lyrics and the utter sweetness of a swashbuckling show that values poetry as much as swordplay.

There’s a vague futuristic tone to Tracy’s vision, from the industrial look of Nina Ball’s sets to the punky flair of Abra Berman’s costumes, and that makes it all seem rather cartoony in a fun comic book sort of way. Why shouldn’t there be merrily marauding pirates in the future?

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The G&S story about a 21-year-old pirate – Frederic (played with dashing charm by John Paul Gonzalez) – who’s really only 5 years old because of leap year complications and his love-at-first-sight girlfriend, Mabel (the silken-voiced Juliet Heller). There’s a Pirate King, of course, played with cross-dressing panache by Cathleen Riddley, and a hard-of-hearing nursemaid who’s much cuter than she’s supposed to be (thanks to Rana Weber) and the very model of modern major general who happens to ride a motorized scooter (excellent driving and rapping by Terry Rucker).

Even musical director Fadner gets in on the act. During an Act 1 scene change, he pops up from the orchestra pit in full snorkel headgear, wailing on his guitar … with a fish.

The show is just under two hours even with an intermission and zips by with help from Emily Morrison’s fist-pumping choreography that occasionally recalls large group moves from ’80s videos – and what’s more fun than ’80s videos? The kids sitting around me were captivated by the show, especially when swords were drawn and the large cast was engaged in fight director Dave Maier’s always excellent moves.

The rock sound of the show spans the decades. There’s a lot of 1950s rockabilly with an Elvis-like rumble, not to mention ’60s surf guitars, ’70s punk and ’80s post-punk. Of course it’s all of a family-friendly variety and played at a comfortable volume.

[bonus videos]
In case your knowledge of The Pirate Movie is limited, please feel free to drink from this well of ’80s kitsch and see why Christopher Atkins and Kristy McNichol were never huge musical stars (but they’re adorable and awfully good sports). The first song, “Pumpin’ and Blowin’,” is an extreme guilty pleasure. The second song is the grand finale, with Frederic and Mabel and everyone pairing off for a happy ending. What would Gilbert and Sullivan think?


Berkeley Playhouse’s The Pirates of Penzance continues through April 1 at the Julia Morgan Theatre, 2640 College Ave., Berkeley. Tickets are $17-$35. Call 510-835-8542 or visit www.berkeleyplayhouse.org.