The operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan are often staged with a big chorus and full Victorian costumes, but the Hypocrites take a different path. The Chicago-based theatre troupe stages “The Pirates of Penzance” with plastic kiddie pools, actors in short-shorts and bathing suits playing banjos, and the production is fairly intimate, as many audience members are seated right in the midst of the action on stage.
It’s all part of an inspired-by-improv approach to what director Sean Graney calls the “respectfully subversive” style of Arthur Sullivan and W.S. Gilbert.
“Gilbert and Sullivan fans really love the music, and they love the lyrics, and they love the spirit of the shows,” he says. “And that’s what I’m trying to capture, the spirit of it for today’s audiences.”
“I think that [Gilbert and Sullivan] were really smart at pointing out the hypocrisies within a society, but in a completely playful, non-judgmental way,” he adds. “They’re really good at getting people to laugh at themselves, without being mean-spirited about it.”
This month, Actors Theatre of Louisville hosts The Hypocrites, who open “The Pirates of Penzance” tonight. The show runs through Feb. 4 in the Bingham Theatre.
Graney says when the troupe first opened the show four years ago in a Chicago basement, he was nervous about how more traditionally-minded operetta fans would react.
“But it turns out that Gilbert and Sullivan fans really enjoy it, and people who have no relationship to Gilbert and Sullivan really enjoy it,” he says.
“The Pirates of Penzance” is an upbeat operetta chock-full of infinitely catchy songs centered around an apprentice pirate who falls in love with the daughter of a man who happens to be the very model of a modern major-general. It’s a fairly optimistic portrayal of pirates (they take in orphans, they harmonize), whose cultural appeal shows no signs of slowing down.
The beach bum aesthetic of this production was sparked by, oddly enough, Graney deciding to re-read William Golding’s classic dystopian shipwreck novel “Lord of the Flies.” He began to see some strange parallels between the two stories.
“As much as ‘Lord of the Flies’ turns dark almost for no reason, ‘Pirates of Penzance’ turns positive almost for no reason,” says Graney. “So I started thinking, what if the boys on the island of ‘Lord of the Flies’ just did a production of ‘Pirates of Penzance’ every year? Maybe through the lessons of ‘Pirates of Penzance’ they wouldn’t go around setting the island on fire or dropping rocks on each other. Maybe they would get along.”
That turned into “what if there’s this group of people together learning the lessons of positive survival?” which turned into “what if it’s 1982 and these kids went into a bomb shelter and they didn’t know they could come out, and they decorated it like a beach?” with “… and they kept doing ‘Pirates of Penzance’!” at the center of the ever-evolving what-if.
Audiences won’t see any meta-story of basements or feral schoolboys or bomb shelters layered onto the plot, but that’s the line of logic the aesthetic development of this production followed. What they will see could change every night, though. The promenade staging means some patrons are seated on the set, and the actors are working around and within them. Graney says his cast is extremely skilled in rolling with the punches that non-actors can create on stage, embracing the fact that some things will change every night.
“It’s an act of live theater, so I see it as an act of live communication. There is a script and there is blocking and there are plans, but most of that can go out the window if there’s a moment that’s more inspirational and more exciting for an actor right there,” says Graney.
“That’s what makes theater exciting to me, when you see that moment of truth and honesty – even if it’s a simple joke, even if it’s just an actor tripping and an audience member trying to catch them and spill their drink and then everyone laughs. That, to me, is such a joyous true moment that we seldom get in the world, and for some reason in theater you can really embrace that,” he adds.
While most musical theatre is strictly choreographed by necessity, in this show, equipping the actors with their own musical instruments frees them up to move as they please without having to communicate with an orchestra conductor on the fly.
“It creates its own problems – you don’t get the fullness of the score, necessarily, but you get a different version that I find exciting, that can be adaptable for the night,” says Graney. “It’s more choreographed by rules and ideas: spin around a lot, show your face to the audience, as much as you can, stand up on something. It’s a set of rules rather than specifically ‘be here’ all the time.”