Sunday, December 28, 2014
"Perhaps it would be wise/ Not to carp or criticize"
Talk about lucky.
My older boy came home from college humming Gilbert & Sullivan tunes. His circle, it seems, passes the lugubrious California evenings by singing patter songs.
Yes, I know.
About the exact moment I was processing this development, I read Hedy Weiss' rapturous review of The Hypocrites joyful twist on Gilbert & Sullivan at the Den Theater Mainstage, 1329 N. Milwaukee in Wicker Park.
"A campy romp," she writes. "Some magic is at work."
Not my normal fare—my tastes run more toward "Medea" than campy magic. But I am nothing if not an indulgent dad.
"It seems a little unconventional," I warned my boy, who, despite his youth or, rather, because of it, can be very conventional. He nevertheless agreed.
The Hypocrites are doing three G & S productions in repertory, "H.M.S. Pinafore," which Hedy called "a loony pajama party," "The Mikado," and the "Pirates of Penzance," which we caught Saturday night.
Entering the small theater, tucked behind a hip coffee shop/bar, the audience is given two choices: conventional seating, in rows, for older people, fuddy duddies, and the timid, and "The Promenade," meaning you can sit anywhere you like: on stage, a long rectangular dock, or any of the substages, consisting of a pair of picnic tables with wading pools atop them, and a sort of a lifeguard tower. Most adults, I noticed, went for the chairs, while the children scattered about, sitting on coolers, tossing the beach balls rolling everywhere. I sat by one of the wading pools—empty, some audience members sat in the pools, and cast members eventually performed there. My older boy gamely joined me, my wife and younger son stayed in the seats.
I loved being in the midst of the action, with singers sweeping past, performing a profusion of instruments, seemingly chosen for their oddness: an accordion, a banjo, a musical saw, a washboard, a snare drum, a flute, a ukulele, a mandolin, a fiddle. It was half English dance hall, half Jimmy Buffett beach party.
The subtitle of the 1879 Gilbert & Sullivan operetta is "The Slave of Duty" and what better way to enhance the Victorian duo's piercing of English conventional notions of place and obligation than turn their operetta into a freeform carnival with a constantly shifting audience.
We were instructed to "travel where and when you want during the show," and the actors would shoo us away with a tap or a point if they needed to be where we were sitting. It was part of the fun to watch everybody moving around, getting out of their way, taking up new positions. Some kids must have been in a dozen different places during the 80 minutes, including perched on a cooler positioned smack center of the stage.
Despite the near chaos, the songs were well-sung, the instruments skillfully played: it wouldn't have worked if certain standards hadn't been maintained.
"The Pirates of Penzance" is not exactly "Mousetrap" — following the plot is not particularly important. All you need is to gather the rough outlines of a typically daft tale involving good-hearted pirates led by a Pirate King, and their good-hearted young indentured shipmate who might, or might not, be bound to them until he's 83. There is a crone to avoid, maidens to marry, or not marry, and the famous "I am the very model of a modern Major-General" patter song.
As regular readers know, I am not a person given to happiness, and am used to what musical theater I partake being performed on the grand stage of the Lyric, often in German. But the Hypocrites' "Pirates of Penzance" is just delightful: well-sung by a nimble cast that manages to be energetic and improvisational without seeming amateurish.
Afterward, the family repaired to Antique Taco up the street (fabulous; go) for an early dinner. The boys—a pair of laid-back teens, remember—were cool to the Hypocrites' production, put off by the boisterous fun and lack of D'Oyly Carte Opera Company polish which they mistake for quality. But my wife and I loved it: what's the point of theater if you don't break the rules? We promised ourselves to go back, sans fils. Though I would suggest that if you have any pre-teen kids you need to introduce to the joys of live theater, you can't go wrong here. You could almost see the gears turning in the youngsters' heads: finally, finally they were in a space where the rules could be tested and broken, which is what Gilbert and Sullivan were all about.
The rep productions run until Feb. 7. Tickets for the promenade (do it!) are $28, for a seat, $36. You can find the schedule and buy tickets by clicking here.