Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

The Hypocrites' Pirates of Penzance
Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Review by Patrick Thomas | Season Schedule

Also see Eddie's review of Heromonster, Richard's reviews of Pound, Shocktoberfest 16: Curse of the Cobra, and Patrick's review of The Creature

Zeke Sulkes, Shawn Pfaustch, and Christine Stulik
Photo by Kevin Berne
Despite the underlying earnestness of Pirates of Penzance—the celebration of duty above all virtues (the alternate title, after all, is The Slave of Duty), the satire that buries its canines deep in the English class system—it is, at its core, relentlessly silly. After all, here we have a bunch of pirates who won't attack orphans or any opponent who is clearly weaker than they, a bevy of maidens who believe they are the first humans to set foot on the stretch of Cornish beach where lurk the pirates, and a young man who was apprenticed to a pirate—and not a pilot, as his father wished—because his nanny Ruth is half-deaf and misheard her instructions.

It is precisely because of these inherent absurdities that Berkeley Rep's current production of Gilbert & Sullivan's most popular work is successful on pretty much every level. It's a gonzo take on a gonzo operetta that will paste a smile on your face through its entire 80-minute running time. (Including a one-minute—yes, one—intermission.) Everything about the show (staged by the creative and production team The Hypocrites) embraces and celebrates silliness.

The show is staged in Berkeley Rep's Osher Studio, a large black box space which they have filled with a beachside boardwalk that serves as a stage of sorts, plus platforms, benches, coolers, kiddie pools, a thatched-roof hut for a bar (open to patrons even while the show is on), and dozens of beach balls and inflatable toys. During walk-in, the performers wander through the space, playing guitars, banjos, ukuleles, and mandolins, singing a variety of relatively well-known pop songs ("Sloop John B" "What's Up?" "Psycho Killer") and inviting the audience to join in. Because the production is staged promenade-style, approximately one-third of the audience is seated in the stage area and become part of the proceedings, moving within the space with the performers, or at times to make way for them. (Tickets are available for reserved seating on risers on both sides of the stage, or for the promenade section.)

The cast, a collection of young, incredibly energetic and fun-loving performers, also play all the instruments. In addition to the string instruments mentioned above, you will hear clarinet, xylophone, violin, toy piano, accordion, washboard, even a saw, which is put to lovely effect. Some of the voices are stronger than others (Christine Stulik as Mabel, has an especially powerful soprano) but clarity of tone and perfection of pitch aren't really the point here. The point is to have a good time. To enjoy some terrific songs and laugh at the antics of this multi-talented cast. To revel in silliness and absurdity.

The Hypocrites, a theater group out of Chicago, is helmed by artistic director Sean Graney. His collaborator in costuming is Alison Siple, and her work here is marvelously colorful, clever, filled with with—and perfectly aligned with the overall tone. A short-sleeved white tailcoat, tutus, striped calf-high tube socks, sashes dripping with medals, men in short-shorts, Ruth wearing a flipper on one foot—no opportunity to add a blast of silly is wasted. (And if you want gonzo, look no further than a Pirate King whose sunglasses and cigarette holder are an obvious nod to the original gonzo, Hunter S. Thompson.)

Despite the wit (and complexity) of Gilbert's lyrics, this is perfect fare for kids, who can romp with the cast and their collection of toys and instruments, even during the show, and not ruin anyone's evening in the process.

But forget the kids, they get plenty of silliness. It is we adults who need this kind of show. We know just how cruel and unforgiving the world is beyond the theater doors. It is we who know, as Gilbert & Sullivan always remind us, of the duty that awaits us out there, who welcome the respite of an hour and a half of ear-to-ear grinning.

The Hypocrites' Pirates of Penzance runs through December 20, 2015 in the Osher Studio at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2050 Center Street at Arts Passage, Berkeley. Shows are Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays at 8:00 p.m., Wednesdays at 7:00 p.m., Saturdays at 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. (No performance on Thursday 11/26, additional matinee on Friday 11/27.) Tickets from $29-$89, with discounts available for students, seniors, and groups. Half-price tickets available to anyone under 30. Tickets are available online at, or by calling the box office at (510) 647-2949 or during box office hours: Tuesday-Sunday 12:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m.

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