Theatergoers on their way into the Loeb Drama Center’s mainstage area encountered a party already in progress before the opening curtain: the cast of the innovative production of The Pirates of Penzance at the ART wearing leis, shorts, and Hawaiian shirts, and strumming guitars, banjos, mandolins, and ukuleles. Numerous beach balls were being batted around and two plastic children’s swimming pools were in evidence. And actually, there was no curtain: this production was mounted more or less in the round. At the outset, a cast member invited audience members to sit wherever they chose, including onstage. Shortly, a male lead cracked open and swigged a beer during his opening speech. This wasn’t, one might say, your grandfather’s Gilbert and Sullivan.
The highly original rendering of the classic operetta emerged from The Hypocrites, a Chicago-based theater company; the ART first presented it last May at its OBERON venue, as part of its Emerging America Festival. The audience response was enthusiastic, so Pirates returned, this time to the Loeb, to wrap up the ART’s 2012-13 schedule (it runs through June 2). Sean Graney, the Hypocrites’ founding artistic director, who conceived and directed the new production, will be a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study next year and will likely do more work in collaboration with ART.
The show is another musically accented production staged under the leadership of Diane Paulus, the ART’s artistic director and professor of the practice of theater at Harvard (read a profile from our archives). Its giddy, freewheeling style is more than audience-friendly, and the adaptation runs only 80 minutes, including a one-minute intermission. Nearly all the cast members play musical instruments, including flute, clarinet, violin, concertina, and even washboard and musical saw. There are some superb singing voices and some innovative casting—Christine Stulik plays both Ruth and Mabel (the former is the 47-year-old whom Frederic, the youthful male lead, spurns in favor of the latter, who instantly wins his heart). Creative set design, including electric “torches” atop poles and long skeins of multicolored “party lights” strung above the stage, evoke an outdoor, pool-party atmosphere. One could easily imagine W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan camping near where Paulus sat, on the edge of the stage, and laughing as hard as anyone.