“Did you like it?” That’s the question I most often get asked when I start explaining The Hypocrites’ romping and participatory interpretation of Gilbert & Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance at the American Repertory Theatre. And I’m not sure it’s the most relevant question to ask.
There’s a fair bit of explaining to do.
The Hypocrites is a Chicago-based theater company whose work has been called “immersive, subversive, beautiful, and complex.”
You can choose a regular seat in the theatre or a seat in the promenade, which is really just the stage. Here there are no assignments. Perhaps you’d like to climb into the kiddie pool or sit in a beach chair near the fully-functional tiki bar? Just be prepared to get up and move at a moment’s notice when a member of the guitar strumming company needs your perch for his aria.
The Victorian era theatre-partnership of W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan is responsible for contributing some pretty playful and witty material to the theatrical canon (e.g. “I am the very model of a modern Major-General”), but it often gets interpreted in pretty dusty, sometimes geeky ways.
Pirates is ostensibly about an indentured pirate who was born on a leap day and consequently finds his contract disputable: Is there a difference between his 21st birthday and his 21st year? But that it seems is the most irrelevant of all to say in attempted explanation.
In its ongoing attempt to expand the boundaries of theatre, the American Repertory Theatre continues to create opportunities for audiences to engage with theatre in new and challenging ways, though I’m not yet sure any of us has really learned the lesson. Despite my near perfect attendance at ART events, I still can’t quite compel myself to get up in the middle of an act and walk over to the bar. That’s a level of subversion that should not be so traumatic, but cuts against many generations of teaching about proper theatre etiquette.
Upon entering the theatre it’s not hard to guess that you’re in for a new and challenging experience. The company decked-out in shockingly short shorts is already at work strumming, harmonizing, stomping, harmonica-playing and passing out sunglasses, well before the curtain call. By the time I settled into my lawn chair, batted around a beach ball, and tried to figure out what in the world was going on I was exhausted before Act 1 even started. I can’t even imagine the endurance required of the multi-tasking and talented cast.
So, did I like it? While I’m not sure I even know what “it” was and consequently have no measure against which to judge, I can say unequivocally that it was a new,challenging, and inspiring experience. I’d go again, but with more trips to the bar.
Pirates of Penzance
at the American Repertory Theatre
through June 2
Tickets available at americanrepertorytheatre.org