REVIEW: The Pirates of Penzance (The Hypocrites)

  
  

The Pirates go promenade with delightful results

  
  

Ryan Bourque, Shawn Pfautsch, Zeke Sulkes, Doug Pawlik, Matt Kahler in Hypocrites Pirates of Penzance

  
The Hypocrites present
  
The Pirates of Penzance
      
Music/Libretto by Arthur Sullivan and W.S. Gilbert
Directed by
Sean Graney
Music Direction/Arrangements by
Kevin O’Donnell 
at
Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division (map)
through Jan 30  |  tickets: $28  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

Sean Graney has shown that he can create provocative dramas, boisterous comedies, and heartwarming children’s shows, and with The Pirates of Penzance he brings his unique voice to opera. Staging the show in promenade, Graney puts the audience on stage with the actors, giving viewers a brand new perspective of the Gilbert and Sullivan classic. Reveling in the absurdity of the plot – the courtship of Major General Stanley’s (Matt Kahler) daughters by the worst pirates ever – Graney applies the same hyper-silliness that has characterized his recent Court productions. Self-awareness, slapstick, Robert McLean in Pirates of Penzance - Photo by Paul Metreyeonand sight gags have become the major weapons in Graney’s comedic arsenal, but the addition of music forces a focus from the director that brings all the elements together in harmony.

Also serving as the pit, the actors give O’Donnell’s acoustic arrangements the breezy summer vibe of musicians like Jason Mraz or She & Him, while still being able to switch into classical mode when needed. Modernizing Sullivan’s music works well with Graney’s concept, which reimagines the pirates as a gang of man-children in too-short shorts, shrunken undershirts, and high top sneakers. This is a group of men that would rather sip Frescas and riff on the ukulele than pillage and plunder, and the music reflects that carefree attitude in a way the traditional score can’t.

I believe promenade staging is a major part of live theatre’s evolution. In a world where entertainment is available at the click of a mouse, removing the fourth wall and placing the audience on stage creates an experience that can’t be streamed or downloaded. It is a thrill unique to the theater, giving the observer unparalleled freedom to interact with an environment that is usually seen from a distance. There are seats for those that would choose to stay inactive, but the real fun happens when you find yourself surrounded by a gang of people in tutus and boxer shorts strumming guitars and singing four part harmonies. Seemingly minimal actions like moving off a bench to allow for an actor’s entrance force people out of their seats and into the actors’ world, and a sense of community builds among the audience as they collectively await the next surprise. That sense of unpredictability is hard to find, especially in a show as well known as Pirates of Penzance.

     
Matt Kahler, Christine Stulik - Hypocrites Pirates of Penzance Becky Poole, Emily Casey, Matt Kahler, Shawn Pfautsch, Ryan Bourque, Nikki Klix - Pirates of Penzance

After turning 21 and leaving his servitude to the Pirates of Penzance, Frederic (Zeke Sulkes) rejoins civilization and falls in love with Mabel (Christine Stulik), the beautiful daughter of a Major General. As Frederic’s swashbuckling comrades are paired off with Mabel’s sisters, the Pirate King (Robert McLean) and Ruth (Stulik), the haggard ship nurse, conspire to keep Frederic a member of their crew. Stulik gives an outstanding performance in her dual roles, showcasing a clear voice that stays strong over a wide range. Her combination of vocals with strong comedic timing and physicality is reminiscent of 90’s SNL members Cheri Oteri and Ana Gasteyer, but they likely lack Stulik’s instrumental prowess. Kahler’s Major General has the production’s most impressive number, performing the character’s famous tongue-twisting solo backed by the entire ensemble. Amazing diction and control are required, and Kahler hits his consonants with pointed precision, racing to the song’s heated conclusion.

Each of the actors involved in this production is given an enormous amount of work to do: playing, singing, and dancing, all while trying to remember blocking in a space filled with audience members. That the production moves smoothly without a single hitch is a testament to the effort put in by the entire creative team, spearheaded by the consistently innovative Graney. It may not look or sound like any Gilbert and Sullivan opera you’ve ever seen, but it will probably be the most fun.

  
 
Rating: ★★★½
     
  

Nikki Klix, Emily Casey, Becky Poole - The Hypocrites Pirates of Penzance

  
  

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REVIEW: Daredevils’ Hamlet (The Neo-Futurists)

 

“Jackass” Meets The Bard

 

 

Jay Torrence, John Pierson, Trevor Dawkins, Ryan Walters, Anthony Courser, Brennan Buhl - from Neo-Futurists' "Daredevil's Hamlet"

   
The Neo-Futurists present
  
Daredevils’ Hamlet
  
Written by Ryan Walters and ensemble
Directed by
Halena Kays
at
Neo-Futurarium, 5153 N. Ashland (map)
through September 25  |  tickets: $15  |  more info

reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

Only in culture centers like Chicago could there be a theater audience savvy enough to completely comprehend this show’s connections between Shakespeare and professional wrestling, the indecisive Hamlet’s crisis of confidence and the endangered masculinity of modern metrosexuals; the actors’ own neuroses and the Shakespearean characters they’re most drawn to. We deserve this show, if only because it won’t be lost on us.

Ryan Walters, from Neo-Futurists' "Daredevil's Hamlet" In 2005 Ryan Walters’ band of jumpsuited or strait-jacketed daredevils created their first edition of exuberant “jackassery.” But, intent on putting statements behind their stunts, five years later the quintet are riffing on “Hamlet,” using their cartwheels, tumbling, acrobatics, and hoop diving to illustrate the melancholy Dane’s identity crisis and adding their own autobiographical confessions to this absorbing “afterword.” (Each gets to answer questions about their dads, whether they would avenge their father’s murder by exterminating their uncle, and whether they are men of action or men of thought.)

The audience is warmed up as an interactive game of “Four-Square” opens the inquiry. It’s followed by various action-oriented depictions of scenes from the tragedy: Young Ryan Walters rides a tricycle as he attempts a small-scale Knievel-like jump across a wooden ramp. (The exact link to Hamlet escaped me here except that he was also reciting the “What a piece of work is man!” speech.) The graveyard scene is depicted with the performers naked in black light with tiny skulls lit up as codpieces over their privates. Ophelia’s drowning occurs in a real flower-strewn trough, a kind of life-size baptismal font. Though the fight between Hamlet and Laertes is reduced to overhyped WWF combat, the sword fight finale is performed exactly as written because, of course, the daredevils can’t overdo the original when it comes to exaggerated overkill.

John Pierson, from Neo-Futurists' "Daredevil's Hamlet"

These 100 minutes teem with fascinating connections where art deconstructs art and life imitates itself. Buhl, stretching a bit, compares Hamlet’s pursuit of justice with his own memories of “wild play” in a kiddie pool that got out of control. Anthony Courser prefers to portray an action figure like Robin Hood whose black-and-white status as a legend is preferable to Hamlet’s moral ambiguity. John Pierson describes the fasting and sacrifices he intends to make throughout the show’s run (including sex and modern food). Jay Torrence is fascinating by Horatio’s loyalty to Hamlet and depicts it with some homoerotic interaction with Walters. Finally, the show’s conceiver, Ryan Walters, playing the pseudo crazy, roller-skating Prince of Denmark, eloquently soliloquizes on the transience of life and its poignant surrogate, the theater, as he bends over an audience member who he intends to never forget. There’s even a brief interlude in which an unnamed actress enters as Gertrude to make a rather convincing defense of Hamlet’s much maligned mother.

It’s not the sometimes indulgent, hit-and-run skits that convince here; they’re clever distractions within a larger illustrated lecture. What wears you down and finally wins you over is the fascinating totality of this free-form action portrait of a play that’s as seemingly inexhaustible as the sun. “Hamlet” and Hamlet are everything we can project onto them and Daredevil’s Hamlet exposes us every bit as much as it illuminates a rather old script.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Trevor Dawkins and Ryan Walters, from Neo Futurists' "Daredevil's Hamlet"

All photos by Candice Conner / Oomphotography

   

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