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: Thieves Like Us (House Theatre of Chicago)

 

Predictable bank-robbing adventure is fun as heck

Thieves Like Us - House Theatre - Byrnes Bowers Hickey

   
The House Theatre of Chicago presents
 
Thieves Like Us
   
Written by Damon Kiely
Directed by Kimberly Senior

at Chopin Theatre,  1543 W. Division (map)
through October 30  |  
tickets: $25-$29  |  more info

Review by Catey Sullivan

House Theatre fans will be in their raucous comfort zone with the company’s latest action-packed production. Thieves Like Us is chock full of the House’s signature elements:  Retro-comic book storyline? Check. Old school siren whose vocal stylings punctuate the scenes? Check. Cops, robbers, dames and drunks? Yup. And where previous House productions have made ingenious use of actors striding across the stage carrying picture frames and pop-up books to evoke small towns, big cities and points in between, Thieves uses a similar technique with newspapers to illustrate the Dust Bowl surroundings of Bowie Bowers and his posse of stick-up men.

But even with its profoundly predictable ending (which pays homage and owes a debt to both Bonnie and Clyde and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Thieves Like Us  is a step up for the House. After bursting onto the scene in the early Aughts with an inspired, revisionist take on Peter Pan,  the House continued with variations on the theme of lost boys long enough to become repetitive. The particulars changed as the House churned out stories of Samarai, cowboys, wannabe rockstars, science nerds and flying cheerleaders (our review ★★★½) – but the core of each adventure remained the same: Adolescence is tough. Growing out of it is even tougher.  For a while, it seemed that their target audience was restricted to ‘tween boys.

thieves Like Us - House Theatre - posterThat demographic will love Thieves Like Us, no doubt. But Thieves, written by Damon Kiley and directed by Kimberly Senior also has enough smarts and wry self-awareness to make grownups smile as well. It’s hero – Bowie Bowers, Depression-era desperado driven to thieving because an honest Joe can’t catch a break in the Dust Bowl – is surely relatable to anybody who has felt the pinch of the current recession (which is to say, everybody).

We first meet our hero at hard labor on a prison somewhere south of the Mason-Dixon line – the locale being evident by the oozing-syrup Okie drawl everybody talks with. It’s mere moments before the first burst of cartoon violence breaks out as Bowie (John Byrnes), hardened convict Chicamaw (Shawn Pfautsch) and elder statesman T-Dub (Tom Hickey) make a break for it. Across the plains they go, knocking over banks and planning One Last Score so that all can retire, maybe in sunny May-hee-ko. There’s A Girl (of course), who is instrumental in convincing Bowie to give up the stick-ups and settle down to a quiet life “on the straight.”  But of course Bowie can’t do that until he makes that One Last Score. And but of course, the last heist goes spectacularly awry.

The plot may be less than innovative, but the Kiley’s dialogue and the ensemble’s zesty execution of it make it mighty entertaining.

As Bowie, Byrnes creates a man of simple wants and basic decency – all he wants is a clean start, Bowie keeps emphasizing, but of course that’s just not possible, no matter how much money he steals.

Senior elicits strong performances from her supporting cast as well, starting with Pfautsch’s Chicamaw, who comes close to stealing the show along with the loot from the vault. Pfautsch instills the violent, hard-drinking, hardened criminal  Chicamaw with an impish spark that’s part playful sprite and part psychopath. It’s hard to say which is dominant, and that’s part of the character’s dangerous, wild-eyed charisma. The third man in the gang is Hickey‘s T-Dub, the nominal brains of the group. Also memorable is Tim Curtis, who exudes sly, degenerate charm first as a retired hold-up man and later as an oily attorney.

As for the women in the cast, Chelsea Keenan radiates joy, lust and deliciously girlish immaturity as Lula, a good-time blonde who can turn a kitchen table into a dance floor faster than you can say Jack Robinson.  And as a one-woman Greek goddess of a Greek chorus, Beth Sagal’s torch song narration is as rich and velvety as fine chocolate.  Breathing life into the composer Kevin O’Donnell’s seductive melodies, she’s a showstopper whose perspective adds significant depth to the comic book veneer. As for Bowie’s gal, the “Pistol Princess” Cheechie, Paige Hoffman is an appropriately hard-nosed moll although her romance with Bowie isn’t especially believable – they seem to love each other only because conventional storytelling demands that the main gangster have a girl to complicate matters.

The adventures of Bowie Bowers might not be especially original. But they’re colorful and clever and entertaining as heck.

   
   
Rating: ★★½       
   
      

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Review: EP Theatre’s “Baal”

EP’s “Baal” Far from Ballsy

 

EP Theatre presents:

Baal
by Bertolt Brecht
co-directed by AJ Ware and Hunter Kennedy
1820 S. Halsted (map)
thru October 3rd (tickets)

reviewed by Barry Eitel

Because it is the first play written by Bertolt Brecht, arguably the most important theatre theorist of the 20th Century, Baal is a fascinating work. The sprawling drama was written in 1918, before Brecht nailed down the Epic theatre style which would become his trademark. Glimmers of Brecht’s later techniques can still be found, though, such as the use of song and direct address. EP Theatre’s current production, billed as their biggest show to date, features live music baalaccompaniment by the band The Loneliest Monk. Although the production values of this Baal can be pretty ingenious, it lacks clarity and comes across as sloppy and confusing.

There is a lot of love for Brecht’s first work right now, with not one but two full productions happening this season (TUTA is also producing the play next May). Now Baal is an interesting little play for studying the writer’s development, but Brecht’s later masterpieces totally overshadow his debut in terms of quality. I wondered why any company would select it over his later works, but I was reminded how devastating and resonant the story can be. Drawing on Romantic period themes, the play follows a young, self-destructive poet with an insatiable appetite for liquor, sex, and verse. Desensitized to the world, Baal leaves shattered hearts and lives in his wake.

Co-directors AJ Ware and Hunter Kennedy’s production is so muddled; however, the full potential impact of the play is lost. Most of the locations or spans of time are never defined. This makes the action of story and relationships of the characters hard to piece together. There’s also a diverse collection of tertiary characters that are double-cast, but these are also ill-defined. The narrative in general in jumbled and the themes, characters, and emotional effect are disordered.

EP-theater-logo Even though Baal was written before the Brechtian style became the Brechtian style, there are still opportunities to use his powerful methods. Brecht himself retooled the play in 1926 to more closely fit his tastes. I was perplexed by the fact that EP’s production seems to shy away from embracing Brechtian techniques when they can be such a fun challenge for a smaller company. The live musicians are a start, especially when they occasionally interact with the actors. But there isn’t much of an attempt to play around with the audience; it feels like we’re watching a realistic play with some poetry tossed into the dialogue.

The performances might be to blame here, many being way more moody than cynically detached. Craig Cunningham was able to encapsulate the moroseness and aloofness of Baal, along with some of the humor (like when he’s playing with a fresh corpse). Shawn Pfautsch’s Ekart, Baal’s slightly more aware best friend, refreshingly punched up the poetry of the script. However, I’m pretty sure Pfautsch and Cunningham were secretly competing for wobbliest walk and seeing who could get closest to the other. The best performance in the production, hands down, is Gus Menary as Johannes. The part is tiny, but Menary’s portrayal was disturbingly underplayed, in particular when he describes how the body of his dead sister must look after years of floating in a river.

David Beaupre’s drab set design allowed the actors to explore different levels and could be transformed into a myriad of locales. With all of the possibilities the set opened up, it feels as if the set wasn’t fully utilized by the directors. The lighting was possibly the worst lighting design I’ve ever seen, sometimes highlighting pointless sections of wall and other times not providing enough visibility to see the actors. The Loneliest Monk is a saving grace of this production, though, providing complex and haunting ambiance.

The live music along with the actors’ obvious respect for Brecht’s evocative poetry makes the production acceptable. With more attention to story and technique, though, EP’s “biggest production to date” could’ve been destructive.

Rating: ««