By May S. Ruiz
When have you ever been to the Pasadena Playhouse to enjoy a romp on the beach? In the venerable theatre’s 100 years of existence its stage has never been converted into a seashore … until now.
From January 23 to February 18, ‘Pirates of Penzance’ by The Hypocrites, fresh from its successful New York run, will be playing at the Playhouse. The production is adapted and directed by Hypocrites Artistic Director Sean Graney; co-adapted by Kevin O’Donnell and with music direction by Andra Velis Simon.
Ten actors will perform the Gilbert and Sullivan classic with a zany twist while staying true to its original spirit. The Playhouse will be venue for the wackiest beach party imaginable, complete with flying beach balls, rubber duckies, ukuleles, banjos, plastic swimming pools, and a tiki bar.
In a re-envisioned Playhouse, all the orchestra seats will be removed and in its place a deck will be built. The entire theatre will turn into a playing area with actors and audience sharing the space to create a fun, magical evening of theatre.
Graney says , “I remember listening to ‘Pirates of Penzance’ the first time and thinking how brilliant it was. It is joyful, playful and welcoming, which was a perfect place to start to remove the walls between actors and audience and get rid of the pretense of theatre. It has proven very successful for us. We first performed it in 2010 and we’re still doing it eight years later.”
Founded 20 years ago by Graney, The Hypocrites is currently run by Graney and Executive Director Kelli Strickland. One of Chicago’s premier off-Loop theater companies, it specializes in bold productions that challenge preconceptions and redefining the role of the audience. Its reputation in Chicago is that of a company that creates exciting, surprising, and deeply engaging theatre as it re-interprets classics and tackles ambitious new works.
“I went to college in Boston, Massachusetts to study acting,” Graney relates. “I was fortunate enough to have a professor who told me I was a bad actor so I searched for other venues within theatre and I ended up writing and directing. After graduation I moved to Chicago with two college friends and together we decided to form a theatre company. There are so many of them in Chicago and if you have a name that stood out, it would give you a certain advantage. Everyone had an adjective or noun theatre company so I thought we should just come up with a band’s name.
‘Hypocrites’ is a theatrical word derived from the Greek ‘hupokrites’ which means ‘actor’ or ‘pretender.’ But also, our events are an amalgamation of a lot of different aesthetic styles which cannot necessarily be pinned down because they’re contradictory at times – like mixing tragedy and comedy in the same show. It’s the general feeling that there are opposing aspects in human nature and, in essence, we’re all hypocrites.
And so in 1997 we put on our first show from a whopping $250 funding we were able to raise. The gentlemen I started The Hypocrites with left and moved on to other things after a while. I stayed on and found other like-minded artists and friends to continue what I had started.”
In the period since, the company has seen several changes. Says Graney, “We started small in the beginning with two shows and as we grew we added more productions to our season. There were years when we were able to do as many as 11 shows and then at times we did only two. This season we’ll have five shows from September to July.
When we began mounting Gilbert and Sullivan productions we were touring as well as maintaining in-town programming and the institution grew fairly large. Then last year we hit a financial roadblock and so we re-evaluated the financial side of the organization and how we would go about producing. Demand is also a factor in the number of shows we do per season.”
Graney reveals the rationale behind their shows, “We wanted to find musicals which were in the public domain so we could develop a relationship with them instead of being held to copyright laws. ‘Pirates’ came about for a specific need – we could adapt it to fit our group and audiences.”
The adaptation process doesn’t take too long according to Graney, “I do a version of the libretto in a couple of days and then I give it to my musical director who will break the orchestration down to mostly chord charts for the guitars. We keep the melodies and vocals the same but we’ll figure out how to support the vocals with stringed instruments. We’ll pick which part would have the flute and where we could put the clarinet. Once we have that together, we get it to performers’ hands. We do a couple of workshops and make adjustments from there. Even now we tweak it each time we rehearse – we make changes to the script to make the jokes more clear, or make the sound better. We’re still improving on it.
We have produced other Gilbert and Sullivan shows, including ‘Mikado’ and ‘HMS Pinafore’ but it was ‘Pirates of Penzance’ we’ve done the most because it aptly suits The Hypocrites make-up. A group of 20 actors plays the various roles in ‘Pirates’ and each time we go on tour we figure out which is the best combination of performers. It’s an hour and 20 minutes, written to be done by ten actors who can play their own instruments so there’s no orchestra.
‘Pirates’ was adapted to be mostly string instruments like the guitar, banjo, violin, mandolin, ukulele, accordion. The audience gets to roam around the stage with the actors and there’s an open bar. It’s a fun event where performers and audience occupy the same space in a joyous occasion.
We premiered ‘Pirates of Penzance’ in Chicago in 2010 in the middle of winter in a basement theatre. It was exciting for the audience to be able to leave the blizzard and snow to have a good time for an hour or two. Several theatres have shown interest in it since and we’ve toured it in Boston, Louisville, New York, and now Pasadena.
From here, ‘Pirates’ will tour Berkeley and then in the summer we’ll be in Maryland, between DC and Baltimore, in The Olney Theatre. No matter what city we played in, we’ve been lucky to have audiences enjoy the show and I hope Pasadenans will react to it with the same enjoyment and pleasure.”
The Hypocrites’s ‘Pirates of Penzance’ is nothing like what we have ever seen at the Playhouse. But there is no better venue where Graney and his band of ‘pretenders’ can infuse their brand of theatre nor will they find a more appreciative audience than in Pasadena. We will happily mingle with pirates, sip mai tais, and frolic on the beach any day.