Wasting away in Gilbert and Sullivanville

-Chris Jones

With cat-like tred — and in the dying embers of the theatrical year — that cheeky Sean Graney, the very model of the modern conceptual director, has pulled out quite a delicious little off-Loop version of “The Pirates of Penzance.” This is not your father’s Gilbert and Sullivan. The Hypocrites’ 80-minute, promenade-style “Pirates” nonetheless is wholly true to the topsy-turvy spirit of W.S. Gilbert, and it features some spectacularly audacious arrangements of the melodic song stylings of Arthur Sullivan, here vivaciously rendered on everything from guitars to banjos to, memorably, a surprisingly tuneful saw.

And, remarkably, the actors play all their own music as they bring to life Kevin O’Donnell hilariously wacky and beguiling orchestrations. This is how creativity can flourish when a work is allowed to pass into the public domain.

Graney and his designer, Tom Burch, have transformed the basement of the Chopin Theatre into a gloriously conceived environment that suggests the back porch of a Key West bar. It’s hard to overstate how appealing it is to wander in the door, kick the snow and ice off your frozen shoes and head into what truly feels like some warped, parrot-headed resort. Actors mostly are in shorts and sun-dresses, a wooden pier stretches the length of the performance space, hundreds of miniature lights blink and chase overhead and little swimming pools dot the landscape. Some in the house were sporting sunglasses. You’re free either to move around or kick back.

That said, the concept doesn’t overwhelm the material. Well, not so that it matters. “Pirates,” which has a preposterous Victorian plot wherein one Frederic finds himself indentured to gentle souls who worship the skull and crossbones yet protect orphans, has a natural aquatic setting and is perfectly well served by anachronisms. Heck, it depends on them.

“Pirates” also bops along very cheerfully when reduced to 80 minutes. Graney’s brand of fun is smart not to outstay its welcome and he’s found a variety of clever ways to reduce the cast size, including the brilliant inspired doubling of Ruth and Mabel (Christine Stulik), the two very different kinds of women who occupy the minds of our dutiful Frederic (honestly played by Zeke Sulkes). And when a little clutch of footlights suddenly emerge from the floor of the promenade, Graney plays plenty of homage to the source.

Be warned that, overall, the singing here is not up to the top-tier, light-opera standards to which Gilbert-and-Sullivan aficionados are accustomed. If it were, this thing would really be something. But the singing is at least adequate. (Sometimes better; you could stack up Matt Kahler’s patter-loving Major General against any.) And the staging is so inventive, the famous police ditty, “When the Foeman Bares His Steel,” will be the funniest you’ve seen or heard. Graney has a lot of fun with some of the class and gender-assumptions in the piece — mixing in a bit of outside music; I think I detected a bit of George Michael and he finds ways to introduce some John Lennon accents.

But this is not some egregiously moderne take-down. It is an irreverent and fresh homage and entirely safe for Gilbert-and-Sullivan fans — and you know who you are — to attend and enjoy. Indeed, it would be an article of faith to do so. I kept thinking about how much Gilbert would have liked it. And of all Graney’s many non-traditional creations in this town over the last few years, this is certainly among my favorites.