January can get a little dreary – it’s cold, dark and wet, and the occasional sub-zero day has us eyeballing island vacations even as our bank accounts are still recovering from the holidays. Fortune smiles upon us inside Actors Theatre of Louisville’s Bingham Theatre, where Chicago-based theatre troupe The Hypocrites have brought the beach party to us with a delightfully eccentric production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance.” The show’s sunny disposition and high-energy staging are as effective a mid-winter mood-lifter as an hour with a light box and a shot of Vitamin D.
Directed by Hypocrites founder Sean Graney, “The Pirates of Penzance” runs through February 4 at Actors Theatre. A limited number of “promenade” seats are available for each performance – that means you’ll be sitting on the stage with the actors – but most seating for this production is ticketed and assigned.
“The Pirates of Penzance” is a madcap send-up of middle-class Victorian values (namely, duty and honor) set to song. Frederic (Zeke Sulkes), a young man accidentally apprenticed to a band of not-so-ambitious pirates, falls in love with a young woman (Christine Stulik as Mabel; she also plays Ruth, the pirate ship’s haggish maid) on the eve of his day of freedom. Mabel’s sisters (Emily Casey, Dana Omar and Becky Poole), meanwhile, attract the attention of the pirate crew, who are determined to marry them by force. All four girls happen to the daughters of a high-ranking military official (Matt Kahler), who has to face the Pirate King (a quasi-Hunter S. Thompson-styled Robert McLean) and his crew (Ryan Bourque, Doug Pawlik, Shawn Pfautsch) if he wants to free his daughters. So the modern major-general tells a wee fib, and Frederic falls victim to a tiny paradox, and the whole thing is played out in witty rhymes and catchy tunes before all’s resolved fairly and well.
Visually, the production employs a slip-n-slide backyard pool party aesthetic of kiddie pools, coolers, short-shorts and and plastic sunglasses to disarming effect.
Graney’s cast is a tight-knit ensemble (all but one are members of the original cast, which was first staged four years ago) of gifted vocalists and comedic actors who do justice and then some to Gilbert and Sullivan’s material. They are also their own orchestra, playing live an array of instruments ranging from flute and guitar to toy piano and washboard.
That complexity , combined with the on-the-fly demands of promenade staging (moving around audience members seated on set pieces, trusting them to move when told), makes this production feel, well, dangerous – not exactly the first word that springs to mind when you think “Gilbert and Sullivan operetta.” Anything could happen – what a thrill! But on opening night, the company hit every anticipated mark and added some truly hilarious bits that enhanced (but never overshadowed) the numbers.
A strength of this style of performance is how the actors can break down the fourth wall with glee– when Kahler gears up to sing “The Major-General’s Song,” the company acknowledges that it’s the big show-stopper we’ve all been waiting for, and even folks sitting in actual seats are treated to visits from the pirate crew. The effect is intimate and exhilarating all at once.
Before the show starts, the cast is already on stage playing and singing, letting fly a barrage of beach balls and hearty welcomes to let you know this is supposed to be a relaxed and fun house. There’s a brief break (seriously, one minute) but no formal intermission in this fast-paced 80-minute performance, but there is a bar set up inside the Bingham, so if you feel like getting a drink during the show, pour (oh, pour) the pirate sherry. If you have promenade seats, wear comfortable clothes and know that you might have to scramble over a bench or grab some space on the floor at some point. And keep an eye out for roving pirates – one just might climb onto your lap or into your aisle.