Getting up close and personal with the Hypocrites’ ‘Pirates of Penzance’ in Berkeley

The Major General (Matt Kahler) leads the ensemble cast of 10 in Gilbert and Sullivan's
The Major General (Matt Kahler) leads the ensemble cast of 10 in Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance” at Berkeley Rep. Produced by the Hypocrites of Chicago, the show runs through Dec. 20th. (Photo by Kevinberne.com)

So there’s this guy you work with. He keeps his distance, you keep yours. Until one day you decide to ask him if he wants to go grab a drink. The co-worker answers in the affirmative, and off you go.

Now after a little bit of liquid courage, the nice and quiet guy you work with goes full hardcore, dancing on the tables, taking serious stabs at karaoke, and buying the whole bar a few rounds before bringing the party to a screeching halt.

The next day at work, when you see your new party buddy, it’s like nothing ever happened. Game over. Time to move on.

But for one glorious night, it was nothing but pure magic.

Well, that’s one way to describe seeing the version of “The Pirates of Penzance” that is produced by the Chicago-based troupe The Hypocrites. Bay Area audiences get an opportunity for an up-close and personal look as the show makes its way through Berkeley Repertory Theatre, where it will have its official opening night on Thursday, Oct. 22nd. Taking the classic Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, the company scales down the show for a cast and orchestra of only 10 who play their own instruments like flutes and banjos, and hey, if you wanna grab that drink with the Pirate King, have at it. Conventional productions of “Pirates” are everywhere, and that is just fine by its legions of fans. But this production is your co-worker – not someone you experience in their fiercest party mode everyday, but a lot of fun for one night.

The mastermind behind the company and the show is the ebullient Sean Graney. As someone who really fell in love with the classic sound of W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, Graney’s company does not aim to outright change the production, but rather give it a little bit of a different insight, and ultimately, a completely different experience.

“It almost feels like a karaoke version. People can feel free to sing along and dance in a way more traditional productions will not allow.“ - Sean Graney (Photo by Ryan Bourque)
“It almost feels like a karaoke version. People can feel free to sing along and dance in a way more traditional productions will not allow.“ – Sean Graney (Photo by Ryan Bourque)

“I love Gilbert and Sullivan so much and have so much admiration for the work, and I hope that is clear to people who see our show,” said Graney. “The audience can stand next to the Major General, and every ensemble member is acting as the orchestra, while the audience is a part of the performance.

“It’s just a different way to experience the show.”

A different way to experience the show is an understatement of epic proportions.

“Fans of ‘Pirates’ have seen it 150 times, but for us, it’s another way of capturing the spirit of the show,” said Graney. “It almost feels like a karaoke version. People can feel free to sing along and dance in a way more traditional productions will not allow.“

The Hypocrites first found themselves on the Chicago theatre scene back in 1997. For Graney, the ability to hone his craft in Chicago meant getting a chance to see and experience many awesome and different styles of theatre throughout the city. For him, going to see shows in such a theatre town was like preparing to make a killer salad – take lots of different ingredients from the entire salad bar and look to make it his own.

“Back then, I would see all these awesome and diverse companies, and a lot of them were held to a very specific aesthetic and ideology,” said Graney. “I loved seeing what company A and company B were doing, and I would mix that with a little of company C to try and create all these great ideas. I did that rather than be held down as a specific way of doing theatre.”

Because the Hypocrites have such a different feel to their productions, clearly different from what people know as a traditional Gilbert and Sullivan work, Graney acknowledged that there were those who might not like or appreciate what the company has done. But after debuting their Gilbert and Sullivan adaptations five years ago, quite the opposite has happened.

“I thought the fans were gonna hate me, so I was nervous,” said Graney. “But I was amazed about how many true, true diehard fans accepted us.

“What really surprised me though were how many people who hated Gilbert and Sullivan, but had the opportunity to experience these awesome songs and songwriters and really end up opening their minds to them.”

The theatre world has certainly opened their minds to the Hypocrites. The biggest theatres in the country have taken notice, with performances in major regional Chicago theatres such as the Goodman and Steppenwolf as well as runs at the American Repertory Theatre and off-Broadway in New York, to name a few.

And with a 20th anniversary coming up in a few years, it’s easy to reflect on the highs and lows of a life in theatre.

“So much has happened, and there are days when I look at production photos and think, ‘Did I really do that show 10 years ago?,’” said Graney. “Some things feel really long, and some things feel really short, and it’s amazing to understand what that means to have a 20-year history in Chicago.”

WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO

Berkeley Repertory Theatre presents “The Pirates of Penzance”
Created by the Hypocrites Theater Company
Book by W.S. Gilbert
Music by Arthur Sullivan
Adapted and directed by Sean Graney
Through Dec. 20th
Running Time: One hour, 20 minutes with no intermission
The Osher Studio
2055 Center Street, Berkeley, CA
Tickets range from $14.50 – $89
For tickets, call (510) 647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org

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