The Huntington plunders Gilbert & Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance
STEALTH BOMBERS This pirate crew can't resist the big finish.
"Ladies and gentlemen," a cheerful female voice informs the Huntington Theatre audience, "the Caribbean Light Opera Society is proud to present Pirates! (Or, Gilbert and Sullivan Plunder'd)." The governor, she continues, wants to assure us that there is almost no danger of a pirate attack during the performance, but if we do have to make for an exit, we should check that there's not smoke or pirates pouring out of it. This announcement is punctuated by cannon fire, and at the end there's a loud explosion and a house blackout before the lights go on and the curtain rises. The sherry is brought out, and soon pirates are swordfighting in the aisles and doing backflips and abducting women from the audience and carrying them across the stage.
That pretty much tells you what to expect from the Huntington Theatre Company's plundering of Gilbert & Sullivan's 1879 operetta The Pirates of Penzance (at the Boston University Theatre through June 14). The action has been moved from G&S's sleepy Cornish coastal town to the Caribbean, and back in time to the early 18th century. The Pirate King has morphed into Johnny Depp's Jack Sparrow; Frederic's nursemaid Ruth, a plain sort of middle-aged woman in the original, is here played in black mini-shorts and over-the-knee black boots by Cady Huffman, who won a Tony for her portrayal of Swedish bombshell Ulla in The Producers. The story's slightly different: Frederic and the rest of the pirates are under a curse (pillaged from another G&S operetta, Ruddigore) that causes them to vomit on land if they're not doing their pirate thing. The only way to lift the curse is to marry a virgin. Frederic believes that Ruth will be his salvation, but it turns out that after all these years with the pirates she's been, uh, plundered.
Even back in Shakespeare's time, and surely in G&S's day, performers must have been tempted to temper the deadpan high road with a little audience-engaging wink-wink nudge-nudge. Pirates! threatens to abandon the high road altogether; there are times (notably the Pirate King's unfunny attempt to embarrass an audience member) when the Huntington production — the work of Gordon Greenberg, Nell Benjamin, and John McDaniel — makes the G&S original look like an evening with Merce Cunningham and John Cage. If on the other hand you have unlimited tolerance for Monty Python and Fawlty Towers, this is the Pirates! for you.
I have no such tolerance, yet shortly before intermission I got my sea legs. There are myriad ingratiating details. The "Tortuga," "Penzance," and "Titipu" (think The Mikado) directional signs at the side of the stage. Major-General Stanley's teddy bear (pillaged from Iolanthe, so shouldn't it have a miniature major-general outfit?). The "cat-like tread" with which the stealthy pirates step on a real cat's tail. Not least the screen in the lobby informing us that "severall [sic] entertaining hangings" will take place after the Saturday matinee (one of the crimes having been "cellphone use in the theater," so take heed), and that picnic lunches will be available.
, John Cage, Boston University, William Shakespeare, More