By Ian Rigg
Time eradicates the rebellious streak in everything.
The iconoclastic buccaneers of entertainment often run aground to become an institution unto themselves. Just as Shakespeare, once bawdy barroom entertainment, became perceived as stiff upper-lipped canon, so too has the once farcical The Pirates of Penzance become tame, if still eminently pleasurable. Any historic elevation of a classic, while enjoyable, runs the danger of making things awfully stale. Luckily, Saltbox Theatre Collective’s all-new take on Pirates snatches the pie from right off the windowsill and digs in with its hands.
The bawdy, clever and thoroughly comedic spin from director Brian Fruits makes no attempt to emulate its high-faluting forebears, and as such is perhaps among the truest successors to Gilbert and Sullivan’s heritage. For what would pirates be if they didn’t plunder the source material and playfully pillage it for all it’s worth?
As denoted in the program, the show “technically” takes place on the shores of Penzance, Cornwall in the mid-19th century, “though we take many timeless liberties.” There is scarcely an ounce of earnestness in this production, which upon seeing it is the correct choice for a thoroughly absurd piece. After all, Pirates of Penzance was the equivalent of a Monty Python sketch of its day. In this unique black-box take with a late-night improv comedy show vibe, the pirates drink Miller Lite. They exit the stage after fusing together for a Voltron gag. Frederic makes a Jerry Seinfeld crack, “But I don’t wanna be a pirate!” The Macarena makes it into the choreography.
The show is utterly silly from bow to stern, and that’s by Fruits’ design. It’s an imaginative feat of irony that would probably tickle the playwrights themselves. In modernizing and manipulating the play, the cast has actually written a love letter to the show’s spirit.
To sail any ship though, you need a crew. Choreographer Maggie Robinson’s riotous moves are the perfect first-mate to Fruits’ delightfully silly direction, turning the Modern Major General’s played-out patter song into a high school homecoming dance. Costumers April Hunsucker-Fruits and Alison Nichols do a commendable job of wardrobe, hair and make-up. Their work calls to mind adults raiding a playchest for a game of grown-up make-believe–paisley shirts, nautical stripes and one player conspicuously in a Pittsburgh Pirates baseball uniform–while still having a swaggering aesthetic. The make-up design echoes the lovingly hand-stitched vibe, with cottonball mutton-chops, and a hag get-up for Ruth worthy of the most repugnant trick-or-treater in the neighborhood.
Rachel Nuckles’ scenic design is simple paintings on the blackbox wall, but serves this kinetic production very well. And graphic designer Amy Moore sets the tone right from the get-go on the program.
The delightful actors take it from there with a committed and kinetic energy–there aren’t many performers dripping with sweat by the show’s end. While there are a few individual weak links in the singing department, the point of this production is performance–audiences are coming for comedy, not a light opera. However, there are some truly talented singers here, and when sung in chorus under the direction of music leader Andrea LeBeau, the cast produces the immaculate tones this musical became known for.
General Stanley’s daughters are a delight to watch and listen to, with Katie Rub and Anneliese Ayers tremendous in their features (and Angela Jos is a queen of physical comedy). The pirates, with Michael Yarnell waving the flag high, are comedically inept as can be, but while they can’t properly pillage without being foiled, they can sure bust a move. David Burke’s Pirate King is more of an Improv Troupe Leader, but it’s a deliberate play to the irreverent spirit, and every iota of his face vows commitment to the performance.
Wendy Venlos-Becker deserves the highest compliment someone playing Ruth can be bestowed–she is riotously repellant. Charles Howard II makes a brilliantly blubbering Sergeant. Brian Bengston is the very model of a Modern Major General, for no reason more than incorporating Malort into his song with a straight face, and keeping regal in fuzzy slippers whilst dancing lovingly with a giant bear costume.
Ryan Smetana is a fantastic Frederic, with the grace and charm to match. As he darts about the stage, he’s a dashing lad with a deft eye for comedy and a sonorous voice. As he swashbuckles between his sense of right and his sense of duty, he proves the closest thing this show has to a true, beating heart of honesty. And Alexandria Rust is a star. Her ingeniously-crafted Mabel is equal parts Disney Princess and Britney Spears, egotistical and self-aware with a lilting voice to delight the heart. In addition to a squad of sight-gag police, she commands comedy.
For an irreverent romp that puts the “fart” back in “farcical,” look no further than Saltbox Theatre Collective’s The Pirates of Penzance! Set sail before this silly and snide show leaves the shore.
Saltbox Theatre Collective presents “The Pirates of Panzance” through July 22 at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Avenue, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.