The cast of H.M.S. Pinafore in the pillow pit.
Photo by Bill Brymer.
By Gilbert and Sullivan
Directed by Sean Graney
Co-adapted by Sean Graney, Andra Velis Simon and Matt Kahler
Co-directed by Thrisa Hodits
Review by Eli Keel
Entire contents copyright © 2015 by Eli Keel. All rights reserved
It must be tough being a great artist.
You come along, full of innovation and frustration; your art makes bold statements about society; you cause a stir; you change the medium; maybe you even change the world a little.
Then, if your work is really truly great, it sticks around long enough that it gets labeled “culture” and gets stuffed up the artistic cannon with all the boring crap you were rebelling against in the first place.
Must be tough.
If Gilbert and Sullivan, those one time rebels who have since become “respected” could see Actors Theatre’s and Chicago-based company The Hypocrites production of H.M.S. Pinafore I think they would mightily approve. The smart and smart aleck antics completely change the specifics of the play and in doing so honor its spirit better than any production I’ve seen.
The ten-person ensemble plays every role, and they also play all the instruments in the erstwhile orchestra that accompanies the action. The entire play is gender flipped, and the action occurs around a great big pit of pillows. Naturally, given the pillows, the cast is decked out and ready for a slumber party, in excellent pajamas courtesy of costume designer Alison Siple.
The Hypocrites have taken great liberties with the script, adding jokes and changing lyrics as they see fit. The result is a fast and fabulous 80-minute Pinafore.
In addition to all this other silliness, the Hypocrites invite the audience to join them onstage, welcoming them to sit on benches, bunk beds, and in the pillow pit.
This audience member immediately dove into the pillow pit. Actually, I went down the slide into the pillow pit, then got out and dived in.
Before the action began, there was an ongoing pillow fight in the pit, egged on continually by a fellow I later realized was director Sean Graney. It was incredibly amusing to watch him try to wrangle the kids in the pit who were getting a little too violent with each other. The shows, and the pit, are both designed to be incredibly kid friendly, so this production would make a fabulous holiday outing for the family.
While the pillow fight raged, the cast members serenaded us all with a stream of popular hits, played on tiny pianos and Ukuleles. They encouraged us to sing along.
Lying in the pillow pit, lobbing pillows and stuffed animals at friends, singing along to the Scissor Sisters, I couldn’t remember a single more joyful moment of my life.
And that before the show even started.
That air of conviviality and participation continued as the show played out its story of love, class divisions, and sailing. The action unfolded around me, immersing me in the experience in a way that was unsurprisingly hilarious, but I didn’t expect to be so frequently moved by the love songs.
Barring some sort of medical condition, I am utterly confused as to why anyone would watch this show and not take the Hypocrites up on their invitation to join the action, but I was assured by audience members further from the stage that they were just as entertained.
There isn’t a single member of the ensemble or the design team that doesn’t deserve a specific shout-out, from director Sean Graney all the way down to the lowliest poop-deck scrubbing sailress.
Doug Pawlik is delightful as Joesph, the gender flipped version of Josephine. While our society has changed enough that women in positions of power are fairly common, a young and “comely” man being bossed around and treated like an object by various powerful women is still a pretty uncommon thing. Pawlik mines this disparity for nearly unlimited comic gold, and also brings a good dose of real charm and charisma. He thoroughly woos ever member of the audience he comes across.
As his love interest Ralphina Rackstraw, Dana Omar is equally wonderful. In between her many comedic moments, she wowed the audience with her skill playing both the Ukulele and the flute.
Emily Casey’s Captain Cat Coran commands the H.M.S. Pinafore, and a great deal of the action. Coran’s s controlling of her son Joseph is equally responsible for the many laughs provided by their gender flipped relationship, and her perkily merciless bossing of her crew is hilarious to boot.
Other standouts include Kate Carson-Groner as Dot Dead Eye, and Ron Mclean as L’il Buttercup; but seriously, everybody deserves lavish praise.
Then show was so much fun, that I didn’t start dissecting the rhetoric of the piece until well after the final number came to a close.
The political statements made with the gender swap are clear and wonderful, but they never distract from the action.
A slyer commentary perhaps comes from the juxtaposition of the discussion of class that drives Pinafore, and the Hypocrites blurring of the classes normally found in theatre: the audience and the performers. Both are welcome in the action, and the pillow pit is a wondrous place of equality. It’s a move that stomps on the stuffy sensibilities of the theatre world, which would no doubt delight those hell raisers Gilbert and Sullivan.
November 17 – December 13, 2015
Actors Theatre of Louisville
316 West Main Street
Louisville, Kentucky 40202
Eli Keel is a Louisville based playwright, poet, storyteller, and freelance journalist. He has been published in Word Hotel, his plays have been produced by Theatre  and Finnigan Productions, and he was invited to read his work at the 2014 Writer’s Block. He is a frequent contributor to LEO Weekly and Insider Louisville, where he has been given the (informal) title of “Chief of the Bureau of Quirk.”