Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic operetta H.M.S. Pinafore was a hit in 1878. The very tongue-in-cheek tale of class distinctions in the British Empire seems pretty creaky in 21st-century America. G&S’s topsy-turvy world still has its partisans, but the humor requires some work. Unless it’s in the hands of some very creative theatrical types: I’ve just witnessed that very phenomenon at Actors Theatre of Louisville where a clever troupe from Chicago, The Hypocrites, have been installed for a month-long run of their rendition of the show.
They’ve taken quite a few liberties, most particularly switching the gender of every character. The Pinafore’s captain and crew are all female; the captain’s child, Josephine in the original, is now sweet-tempered Joseph, and the lowly sailor-maid he’s fallen in love with is Ralphina Rackstraw instead of G&S’s Ralph, a hearty young lad.
The music has been abbreviated, but almost all the tunes from the original are present — with lyrics a tad modernized, and accompanied by contemporary instruments ranging from guitar, fiddle and clarinet to ukulele, mandolin, flute, kazoo, saw, drums and more. The 10 actors are equally talent as musicians, and frequently use their instruments to amusing effect — including a slightly rude “mating” of the flute and the clarinet as played by Ralphina and Joseph.
Ramping up the hilarity further, the entire company wears pajamas (with wildly nautical patterns) and floppy slippers. It’s as if we’re at a big sleepover on board the ship, and pillow fights break out with some frequency. Performed on Actors Theatre’s Bingham arena stage, with the audience completely surrounding it, the show features a playful set with a sliding board that delivers performers into a kind of G-rated mosh pit. And not just performers, since one of the Hypocrites standard modes is “promenade-style” performance, which invites members of the audience onstage, seated on benches or even in the pit. Actors use the stepped aisles for some of their entrances and exits, so there is a constant flow of activity. (Two costumed stage managers move audience members out of the way if they’re somewhere that actors need to be.)
It’s non-stop hilarity — 80 minutes, we’re told, with a one-minute intermission (the house lights come up, the cast and audience exchange a bit of banter and then the second act kicks right in).
There’s a lot of talent in this cast, especially Dana Omar as Ralphina, Doug Pawlik as Joseph, Emily Casey as the Captain, and Lauren Vogel as Dame Jo-Anne Porter (as well as a “sailoress” named Tiff’ni). Comic moments are added by Rob McLean as the sentimental Li’l Buttercup (as the name suggests, usually a sweet middle-aged woman) and Kate Carson-Groner as the spoilsport Dot Dead Eye (instead of the old salt Dick Dead Eye in the original).
It seems to me that Gilbert and Sullivan must be smiling on this inspired adaptation that plugs into the zany spirit of their original implausible but humorous story. Sean Graney, the inventive founder of the Hypocrites, staged the show. He assembled a similar production of The Pirates of Penzance that found its way to Louisville in early 2014; this is a welcome return by a very creative company. Graney has also put together a similarly styled version of The Mikado, which has toured to other cities. I hope it comes to Louisville — or even to Cincinnati. There’s nothing hypocritical about the work of these performers: They’re the real deal.
H.M.S. PINAFORE, presented by Actors Theatre of Louisville, continues through Dec. 13.