San Jose Mercury News Review: Wild ‘Pirates of Penzance’ sets sail at Berkeley Rep

By Karen DeSouza

Before you embark on a voyage through the Hypocrites’ “Pirates of Penzance,” toss all the quaint rules of operetta out the porthole. You might say this is a very spunky model of a postmodern musical. Berkeley Rep’s presentation of this Hypocrites Theater Company revival is a giddy journey through immersive theater that turns the Gilbert and Sullivan chestnut into an outrageous evening of frisky song and silliness.

The Chicago-based troupe throws a raucous theatrical party, chockablock with beach balls, twinkly lights, rubber duckies and tiki torches. Set in promenade style, where half the audience is invited to sit wherever they please in the Osher Studio (ice chest, floor, you name it), this is one of the most gleefully subversive musicals to come to town in ages. This zany 85-minute “Pirates” is awash in irresistible absurdity (also booze).

KEVIN BERNE/BERKELEY REPERTORY THEATREMatt Kahler is a high-energy Major-General in Hypocrites Theater’s madcap adaptation of "Pirates of

KEVIN BERNE/BERKELEY REPERTORY THEATRE Matt Kahler is a high-energy Major-General in Hypocrites Theater’s madcap adaptation of “Pirates of Penzance,” which turns Berkeley Rep’s Osher Studio into a pool party of sorts. ( brt )

The cheekiest aspect of Sean Graney’s staging is how cleverly he plays fast and loose with the somewhat stodgy Gilbert and Sullivan canon. If you adore the genre, you can’t help falling for this goofy reinvention. But even if you don’t know your “Mikado” from your “HMS Pinafore,” you are guaranteed to step off this loopy cruise with a smile plastered on your face.

If you still have reservations, you might want to sidle up to the tiki bar and quaff a spiked punch or two while the musical sails on. Imagine if Gilbert and Sullivan went to the beach for spring break in the 1980s and you get a sense of the adventure.

The music also makes a splash, with many beloved ditties dished out by a band of ukuleles, accordions and banjos that rove in and out of a plastic baby pool. Oh, and there’s also a smattering of “Eye of the Tiger” and the “Milkshake” song in the mix.

The eccentricity of the staging actually seems in keeping with the screwball nature of the plot. In this 19th-century spoof of Victorian values, a dutiful young lad named Frederick (an irrepressible Zeke Sulkes) is unwittingly apprenticed to a ragtag band of pirates before falling in love with the ingenue Mabel (Christine Stulik) on the very eve of his freedom. He is also promised to the web-footed old Ruth (also Stulik), but that’s the least of his troubles on these choppy waters.

 Meanwhile Mabel’s sisters (Jenni M. Hadley, Becky Poole, Kristen Magee), a bevy of bathing beauties in tutus and swimming caps, get dragooned into marriage by the pirate crew, scurvy knaves decked out in short shorts and shades. When the troubador-pirate king (a charismatic Shawn Pfautsch) faces off against the Major-General (a commanding Matt Kahler, who can actually pull off the patter songs), high-seas high jinks ensue.

Not all of the singing and elocution here is as precise as it might be. Sometimes the juiciest puns get lost in translation, although there is a very funny bit of rhyming involving strategy and colonoscopy. Sometimes the audience members, getting snockered or flirting with each other or playing with inflatable pool toys, are almost as amusing as the cast.

But those quibbles hardly matter in this wading pool of wackiness, a holiday show for all seasons that actually seems joyous instead of merely entertaining. It’s also an ingenious way to show off the intimacy and verve of the Osher, a 200-seat black box theater that now functions as Berkeley Rep’s third stage.

All you have to do is dive in, maties.