H.M.S. Pinafore Review - Contagiously Great Fun

Sailresses Dana Omar, Kate Carson-Groner, Christine Stulik, Emily Casey & Lauren Vogel

If you’ve never seen a Hypocrites show or don’t know what they’re about, let me clue you in with a little story about after I saw their world premiere adaptation of H.M.S. Pinafore. I left the theatre, face and stomach aching from laughter and heart warmed from making friends with several audience members/previously strangers, ready to grab a beer with my friend.Then adapter and director Sean Graney gave us both hugs and invited us to the pizza party afterward, which sparked not only great discussion about the play but about theatre and life, with the cast and friends celebrating in the Den Theatre’s mainstage bar. They make you want to participate. Any audience member has felt his or her stomach curdle at the promise of audience participation, fearing inability or humiliation. But the Hypocrites don’t live that: in the now two shows I’ve seen of theirs (the first being the marathon version of All Our Tragic), they breed a culture of community, joy, theatrical surprises, and heart. This production was like a 70 minute slumber party and everyone, especially the audience, was invited to help move the show forward; and much to my delight: everyone did.

The talented Pinafore ensemble

As in All Our Tragic, all the actors milled about during preshow in the brightly coloured, promenade style staging, greeting everyone who came in and playing music. For those of you who haven’t had the privilege of being in a promenade style stage, the audience is encouraged to walk around, and find a new perspective in different seating during the performance. Here, all of the set pieces were seating where actors had to perform, and audience members congenially complied with the relocation. The most desired seating was in the pillow pit center stage: in full honesty, I did not hide my envy for the crowded pillow pit well. But actor Doug Pawlik came bounding over to me (I didn’t know him, but I do now), promised I would get a chance, then joined his ensemble in an acoustic rendition of Sweet Dreams_Annie Lennox (complete with banjo and clarinet, among others). This preshow did what a preshow should: it giddily ushered us in to the world of the play.

Pawlik pining in the pillow pit

The story itself is a classic, comedic tale of forbidden love, class relations, and nautical fun, but here with a gender swapped twist. Captain Cat Coran (Emily Casey) of the H.M.S. Pinafore and her melodic sailresses on the seas to meet Admiral Dame Jo-Ann (Christine Stulik) - who is just so fancy - to wed the Captain’s son, Joseph (played by Pawlik). On their journey, they pick up sailress Ralphina Rackstraw (Dana Omar), whose heart and flute quickly harmonize with the Captain’s betrothed son. The captain forbids woodwinds and marriage outside of class, and many sets of couples fight for love for the remainder of the play. The ensemble was solid: goofy and electric in their vigor, this adaptation moved at a tight yet easy clip. Some stand out performances of the evening were Casey, Stulik, and Pawlik: they were hilarious and present, inventing in the moment, and constantly having fun. It was infectious. I took my first seat on top of one of the stage’s bunk beds and Pawlik sought me out mid-performance, belted right into my face, and then held a spot for me in the pillow pit to grab a seat. The ensemble was always ready to give to the audience and in turn we wanted to work with them too: we were ready to run out of the way, do silly hand gestures, and throw props around because we loved how we were included.

Matt Kahler and the very fancy Stulik

The design reflected that level of fun as well: there was nothing to dislike. As the show runs in Gilbert & Sullivan repertory with The Mikado and The Pirates of Penzance, I can only imagine how they transform that space. Here, they used a blanket fort as sails, bunk beds as the foretop or crowsnest, and the pillow pit as a possible poop deck. It swaddled this world in a unique set of pastel pajamas: Michael Smallwood’s set had such personality, and Alison Siple appropriately costumed the ensemble in character and rank specific pajamas. Why pajamas? I loved that choice almost as much as Heather Gilbert’s delightful and transformative lighting design. The ensemble and the design merged in youthful spirit that earned all of these choices.


The talented Pinafore ensemble

Real Talk: Go see this premiere, and the remaining shows in rep. Will it make you reexamine your ideals, politics, and/or finances? No. But as the daylight and current events darken all too quickly these days, you do need to cackle and find community out of a room of strangers; and I commend the Hypocrites for always trying to find the light.

The Hypocrites’ HMS Pinafore runs in repertory with The Mikado and The Pirates of Penzance at the Den Theatre Mainstage, 1333 N Milwaukee Avenue from now until February 7, 2015. For more information and tickets for all three productions, visit www.the-hypocrites.com.

Photos by: Evan Hanover

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