Back in the 1980s, the Stratford Shakespeare Festival made their way through the Gilbert and Sullivan canon. Though the reaction at the time was somewhat mixed - their Mikado was generally hailed as a triumph, their Pirates widely enjoyed but criticized by purists for some of its liberties, their Iolanthe, well - when the G&S era at Stratford ended, it was missed. And when asked why he didn’t program these beloved operettas anymore on the Stratford stage, Monette reportedly replied: “They’re DEAD.”
An interesting thing for the Artistic Director of a Shakespeare festival to say, and yet one knows what he meant. Shakespeare the man may be dead, but you know the line - “He was not of an age but for all time.” Gilbert and Sullivan, meanwhile, were satirizing a particular society, and few forms of comedy age worse than satire. We can still laugh at the modern major general - because both in the military and in all other walks of life we still need to deal with over-credentialed experts outranking men and women of actual experience. We can still laugh at “peers will be peers” - we’ll just think of them as Harvard graduates rather than hereditary nobles. But can we still laugh at the Victorian ladies terrified at having their ankles exposed before a man? Or at Frederick, the Slave of Duty? I suppose we can - but we aren’t laughing at ourselves anymore. That’s what we mean by dead.
So: what is one to do? Because the plays are still wonderful; they don’t deserve to die.
Well, the Hypocrites, a superlatively energetic theatre troupe in Chicago (full disclosure: my nephew is in their current show) has hit upon a new way of bringing G&S to life rather than keeping it on life support: remember that it’s theatre. It isn’t a political cartoon. It doesn’t have to make a cutting satiric point about our society. First and foremost, it has to be, yes, fun.
And it’s a great deal of fun. They’ve set The Pirates of Penzance in what’s basically a beach party, and invited the audience along. There isn’t really a stage, and there isn’t really an audience - there’s a pier built across the center of the theatre, but the audience is invited to sit on it, and the actors don’t confine themselves to it but range around the whole space, across benches, across the floor, and into and out of plastic wading pools. When audience members are in the way, they are politely nudged aside. If they don’t get the hint, they may be jumped over.
The actors carry their own instruments, mostly guitars, and all the music has been re-set to beach-friendly rock-and-roll-inflected rhythms, with the recitative generally turned into dialogue. And the show has been cut drastically - down to eighty minutes, with no intermission. But though it flies by, you rarely notice what’s lost - mostly, parody of opera conventions that wouldn’t survive a rockin’ beach-party setting anyway. In fact, I more noted how they managed to slow things down for one song in particular - “Sighing softly to the river” - more often played as a backdrop for piratical business in the background, here played entirely straight, and surprisingly movingly.
The cast is small, so there’s a great deal of doubling, some of it comic but silly - they have no dedicated policemen, so the hapless men in blue are played first by the pirates and then by General Stanley’s daughters - but in one case at least absolutely sublime: Ruth doubles as Mabel. It doesn’t hurt that she has the best voice in the company, but what’s really fabulous about this choice is how thoroughly it satirizes Frederick’s romantic choice. This is the way to update G&S - not by finding modern political targets that could substitute for those of Victorian Britain (that just turns G&S into Mark Russell) but by playing G&S’s own game of topsy-turvey in ways that resonate more with a modern audience (the audience that made possible an excrescence like “Cougar Town”).
Christine Stulik, who plays Mabel and Ruth, shines far from alone, though; the cast is uniformly excellent, and the four principals in particular, Ms. Stulik, Robert MacLean (the Pirate King and the Chief of Police), Matt Kahler (General Stanley and Samuel, the Pirate Lieutenant) and Zeke Sulkes (Frederick, the Slave of Duty) all do a superlative job. I’m especially impressed with how well they tread the line between knowingness and remaining in character; some of the choices they make (like having Frederick gaze at a large sign reading: “DUTY” whenever the word is said) risk becoming camp in a bad way, taking us out of the show, yet the energy of the performances is such that they never do.
Between the Hypocrites’ Pirates and Fiasco’s Cymbeline, I feel quite encouraged by the potential of relatively low-budget and small companies to keep classic theatre alive. So long as exceptionally talented actor/musicians can be found who are interested in bringing those works to life, they live. And, thankfully, the supply of such talent doesn’t appear to be running that low.