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[Theater reviews]

Booty call
The Publick’s Pirates plunders well


Book by W.S. Gilbert. Music by Arthur Sullivan. Directed by Jessica Kubzansky. Set by Janie E. Howland. Costumes by Nicole Schott. Lighting by William McCarthy. Choreography by Kirsten McKinney. With Brent Reno, Khori Dastoor, Bob Jolly, Sarah deLima, Bill Gardiner, Gregory Bouchard, Jon Blackstone, and musicians Jonathan Goldberg, Louis Toth, Catherine Stephan, and Peter Himmer. At the Publick Theatre, Wednesday through Sunday through August 12.

Most people recognize the titles of the major Gilbert and Sullivan operettas — H.M.S. Pinafore, Patience, The Mikado, etc. — but even dedicated Savoyards sometimes forget about the subtitles. No danger of that with this Publick Theatre production of The Pirates of Penzance: Janie E. Howland’s set — the same configuration she used for Much Ado About Nothing last month — is imprinted with an extended dictionary definition of " duty, " reminding us that Pirates’ subtitle is " The Slave of Duty. " And during the Overture, our hero, Frederic, is terrorized by the birch-wielding figure of " Duty, " who wears a commedia mask and a white hooded cloak with the same " duty " definition written all over it. This Pirates has a major problem with the orchestra balance, but that’s easily corrected, and director Jessica Kubzansky’s imaginative touches put me in mind of the fine Harvard-Radcliffe G&S Players production of five years ago.

The plot is vintage G&S satire. Frederic’s father, intending him for a career at sea, instructed his nursemaid, Ruth, to apprentice him to a pilot, but Ruth, being a little hard of hearing, misunderstood and apprenticed him to a pirate instead. Being a slave to you-know-what, Frederic serves out his term, and he’s truly fond of his hopeless band of Cornish buccaneers (word is out that they never harm orphans, so no surprise that every ship they apprehend is manned by you-know-who), but the second his apprenticeship is up, his duty to Queen Victoria will require that he wipe them out, whereupon he’ll be able to marry Mabel, the loveliest of Major-General Stanley’s daughters. If only it were that simple: Ruth, who though she’s 47 wants Frederic for herself, reveals that he was born on February 29, and since he was apprenticed till his 21st birthday, duty demands that he stay with the pirates till he’s 84. Even worse, Frederic must confess that when the Major-General told our cutthroats he was an orphan, he did not tell the truth, as is the duty of an English gentleman. Enraged, the pirates force Frederic to lead them against Mabel’s father, and it looks bad until they realize that they’re all English gentlemen — and that the pirates are peers, to boot.

This is piffle, of course, but Kubzansky treats it as if it were Shakespeare, giving us poignance as well as pratfalls. Even during the Overture, she has a bobby in the aisle writing up audience members (for illegal " parking " ?); meanwhile on stage " Duty " goes after Frederic with that birch rod. The Major-General’s daughters, here seven in number, all but steal the show with their baby-step marching and military turns and the way they flirt with the pirates; note how each lady’s nightgown matches the color of her dress, how they all wear their pantalettes under their nightgowns, and how at the end they contrive to turn their nightcaps into bridal veils.

The big drawback is the four-piece (two keyboards, cello, percussion) orchestra, which is enjoyable but far too loud, drowning out much of the solo singing. Nothing can drown out Bob Jolly’s Major-General: his diction and timing in " I am the very model of a modern Major-General " are impeccable, and when he wasn’t wanted on stage last Friday evening, he slipped into the front row and held a little girl from the audience on his lap. Brent Reno’s Frederic is suitably blond and hunky and duty-bound; he has a pleasant singing voice but not much power. Khori Dastoor makes for a slyer, more knowing Mabel than I’d like (surely this role calls for Victorian pseudo-innocence), but she sings beautifully when the orchestra lets her. Sarah deLima’s winsome Ruth is no comic crone but a fetching wench who hardly seems too old for Frederic; and with her hatchet she’s the most ferocious pirate of them all. The Dogberry-and-Verges-like police quintet, headed by Sergeant Jon Blackstone, rival the pirates, with King Bill Gardiner, for good-natured ineptitude; the latter group are fecklessly fortissimo, as the libretto directs, when they creep up on the Major-General " With cat-like tread. " This production might not be the very model of a Pirates of Penzance, but its high spirits had me wondering whether we couldn’t have G&S as well as Shakespeare on the Common.

Issue Date: July 26 - August 2, 2001