Sean Graney’s wild and unconventional take on Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance has come to NYU’s Skirball Center in the Village for an engagement that ends December 10. The Hypocrites specialize in “mounting bold productions and redefining the role of the audience.”
In this case, the entire production and the audience are on the Skirball’s stage, both in three tiered rows of chairs on three sides, and sitting directly on the playing area. The actors will ask you to move if they need that spot. They call this “promenade seating,” and all the audience promenades around the set at the beginning.
When you arrive, you will find the entire cast on stage playing various stringed instruments and improvising a series of country-folk numbers while they throw beach balls to the audience. This is not surprising, since they are all dressed in Hawaiian beach attire. And, in this production the cast is also the entire orchestra, made up of guitars, mandolins, banjos, a violin, an accordion, a squeezebox, a flute a clarinet and, in the second act, a washboard and a musical saw. The arrangements are by the musical director, Andra Velis Simon.
Despite all this lovely chaos, this IS a production of Pirates. Most of the lines are intact (although there are some clever ad libs.) And they play and sing just about all the music except for “A policeman’s lot is not a happy one.”
After the cast explains that you can get up and move around at any time, and go to the on-stage Tiki bar whenever you want, they launch into “Pour, oh pour the pirate sherry,” just as any other production would, except for the stringed accompaniment.
Most of the voices are excellent, and while the 3 Daughters are a bit shrill some of the time, this is clearly part of the fun: they clearly all can sing very well.
Most surprising is the Christine Stulik plays both Ruth, the comic mezzo, and Mabel, the ingénue coloratura soprano, since they are almost never on stage at the same time anyway. At the very end she appears in a red dress we have not seen before, and Freddy (Frederick to you) asks if she is Ruth or Mabel. She says she has no idea.
And as Ruth, Stulik delivers a rousing klezmer version of her first number, “When Frederick was a little lad,” with Freddy playing clarinet to help accompany her.
The Daughters (of the Major General) are relatively young actresses that we first see tossing beach balls with the rest of the cast, but when we see them as the daughters a bit later, they are all dressed in rubber bathing caps with little rubber flowers, and flouncy skirts.
The tenor lead, Shawn Pfautsch plays Frederick, or “Freddy” as he is mostly called, and has a lovely voice as well as great humorous athleticism. His duets with Mabel are just as good as in any other Pirates and probably a bit funnier. Matt Kahler, as the Major-General, has great poise, sense of comedy and terrific diction.
While this really is a production of Pirates, the Hypocrites carry it off with a cast of 10, playing Freddy, Ruth, Mabel, the Pirate King, the Major General and 3 Pirates and Daughters, as well as all the needed policemen. Don’t miss this delightful production!