Thursday, May 21, 2009

Things that make you go "Aargh"

The cast of Pirates! kicks back at the Huntington.

Pirates!, the new "plundering" of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance, at the Huntington through June 14,will probably be remembered not for anything that occurred during the actual show, but rather something that went down after the curtain fell on opening night. Seemingly infuriated by Louise Kennedy's pan in the Globe, Huntington Managing Director Michael Maso called on the theatre's blog for patrons who enjoyed the production to vent their anger via her review's comments section at And many of them were happy to do so. Which may someday be seen as a watershed event in the slow destruction of the "authority" of the critic (it was certainly far more ground-breaking than anything seen onstage in Pirates!). For Maso's call-to-arms marks the first time a local theatre has publicly taken advantage of the Internet to "fight back" against a negative review in so direct (and insulting) a way. And somehow I doubt it will be the last. (I tangled with Maso on the Huntington's blog over the appropriateness of his actions here.)

Not that Maso actually disagreed with Kennedy on the specifics of her criticism. Indeed, his post seemed carefully phrased to avoid any actual rebuttal of her complaints. Which was probably wise, because Ms. Kennedy described the production quite accurately: this mash-up of pirates from both Penzance and the Caribbean does depend on "sitcom-level rewrites, broad yet toothless parody, and lots of tired pirate gags" as well as "gyrating pelvises, pounding drums, "political" jokes that don't actually have a political point, and onstage vomiting," just as she said. (You could add to that grim list puerile lyrics and interpolations of poorly-adapted music from the lesser G&S operetta Ruddigore.) In an apparent effort to sound fair-minded, Kennedy also faithfully reported that the opening night audience "hooted and hollered at every ribald joke and bawdy gesture," and even allowed that "This just isn't my idea of fun. Maybe it's yours."

But such feints weren't enough to hold back the Huntington's angry hordes - who have been calling for her head on a platter over at For these satisfied customers (who all claimed to have seen Pirates! with grandma, the kids and the family dog, who of course loved it) seemed to sense - at least after Maso insinuated as much - that criticism of Pirates! amounted to "breath-taking condescension." Kennedy had insisted that her dismay at the production's pseudo-raunchiness wasn't the result of her being a "prude" (when actually, I think she is, a bit), much less a "purist" - but the Huntington's audience took her as something else, and far worse in their minds: a snob.

Their indignation is a little hard to parse, however, because Pirates! is so clearly a vulgarization, albeit a harmless one, of its source. Its tween-movie vulgarity is central to its appeal, indeed is its appeal; there's really nothing else going on in the show in interpretive terms. Over and over again the Huntington (and director Gordon Greenberg) relentlessly pound a PG-13 sex-comedy template onto the material, the better to merge it with the Disney franchise Pirates of the Caribbean. Ruth in this version is no longer a dowager, for example (because that would be sexist!), but instead is a hot mama in high boots who's done the dirty deed with the whole crew. Frederick woos the Major-General's daughters by wagging his very-fine booty at them (they've already stripped to their bloomers, below), and soon after tosses his cookies, etc., etc. It's all stupid, but also stoo-pid, i.e., knowing and calculated and derivative.

Frederic (Anderson Davis) sees England, France, and these maidens' underpants.

And yes, the audience eats it up. But how is it possible to laugh at these gags recycled from the multiplex, and then evince outrage when someone points out that they are, in fact, recycled from the multiplex? In short, despite the Huntington's claims that it's looking to make Pirates of Penzance 'resonate' for a modern audience, Pirates! doesn't resonate with its audience so much as congratulate it. The production is about pulling Gilbert and Sullivan down to the level of the masses; and yet, somehow the masses get very upset if you point that out! This is almost a palimpsest of the American mode of class-consciousness. We're an openly class-driven society, and yet our political ideals demand we deny that - and the resulting collective neurosis plays out as hysterical outrage over even the most obvious divisions of taste.

But how, exactly, could this particular mash up "resonate," anyhow? Besides having pirates in them, the two pieces have almost nothing in common; in a search for resonance, you'd have as much luck crossing Pirates of Penzance with The Bourne Supremacy. The original operetta is a light, romantic satire of its own culture's mores. Its pattering lyrics are legendarily witty; its tunes kept an opera company (D'Oyly Carte) in business for over a hundred years. The Pirates of the Caribbean movies, by way of contrast, are based on a ride in an amusement park - and indeed, a literal "wild ride" (on a spinning millwheel, or in a swinging cage) often figures prominently in them. As a result, the franchise is never actually satiric or romantic - its heroes and heroines are post-romantic figures designed to wander through a vast, virtual thrill-scape (which barely makes narrative sense) while playing to the audience's ironic sense of self-awareness. It's true that despite all this meta-cinematic distance the movies can still be fun - they have a frisky physical wit that G&S lacks - but they're so bloated that they're actually longer than most of the operettas. And they're more a guide to our consumer culture than a critique of it; indeed, the idea of satire, much less romance, is hopelessly passé to the creators and consumers of Pirates of the Caribbean; to its eternally-adolescent denizens, our pop culture (and its corporate underpinnings) is simply beyond critique; it even transcends critique.

So you can see that in the Huntington's Pirates of the Penzibbean, the fizzily engaged (and in its way, deeply conservative) spirit of Gilbert and Sullivan must inevitably vanish - at least until, upon occasion, a stretch of their own music and lyrics is allowed to pass across the proscenium unmolested by adapters John McDaniel and Nell Benjamin (both of whom, to my mind, should be made to walk a plank somewhere). And when this happens - as when the pirates suddenly tear into all five parts of "Hail, Poetry," for instance - it's like a rush of pure joy, as if some angel of musical comedy had descended from the flies and blown a happy blast on her trumpet. To be fair, there are a few more moments like this - and in its second half, the production generally sticks to a scrambled version of the original score, which helps things. Mabel and Frederic are left alone to sweetly warble "Stay, Frederic, Stay!," and as that very modern major-general, Ed Dixon (above left) has a lot of new lyrics to put over, but they're actually okay, and he's so hammily wonderful in the role that he seems to yank the whole production up a few notches in quality (when he reprises his big number and basically breaks the sound barrier with it, for a few moments you forgive Pirates! everything).

There are a few more real pleasures in the show. The leads all sport good pop voices, but some (like Frederic) are obviously stretched by the high end of Sullivan's music. The choruses, both male and female, sound terrific, however, and the men dance as well as they sing; indeed, the show's real bursts of exuberance come with their rowdy, athletic routines. As the Pirate King, the talented Steve Kazee channels Johnny Depp's Jack Sparrow, which works well enough as an elaborate in-joke, but eventually wears thin and doesn't quite supply the production enough energy. Kristen Sergeant makes a smart, sensible Mabel, which of course isn't how the role is written, but it works well enough against Frederic's daffiness (if he's sometimes strained vocally, hunky Anderson Davis is nevertheless charming in the role, even when he's puking), and she has a beautifully pure soprano, so it's too bad a lot of dumb stage business ruins "Poor wand'ring one."

So if you can't tell by now, this is a wonderful cast, and they sing and dance their hearts out over the course of the evening on one of the Huntington's customarily smashing sets. The trouble is that they're just too often trapped in crass new conceptions of their roles (as Tony-winner Cady Huffman is with Ruth). If, of course, Pirates! was simply a commercial entertainment, designed and promoted by commercial producers, this would be of no critical interest, and the production would merely take its place among the many adaptations of G&S (and Shakespeare!) which have popped up - and subsequently popped - like theatrical bubbles over the course of stage history.

What's troubling, however, is that it's being promoted by a major university as having some sort of larger interpretive value - that it "resonates" in some way, or "updates" G&S in a manner that's intellectually respectable. But to be blunt, this is simply a willful twisting of modish academic thinking to commercial ends (an inevitable trend, as I've written before). It's true, ironically enough, that Pirates! is never actually offensive, as the A.R.T. has often been. This is an elaborate goof masquerading as an interpretation, and thus it doesn't rewrite Gilbert and Sullivan as fraudulently as the A.R.T. rewrote The Seagull or Desire Under the Elms (productions which the Globe was far more sympathetic to). So if the Huntington has a case against Louise Kennedy, it might run something like this: why is vulgarity somehow more palatable when it derives from academic theory rather than simple commercial concerns? Louise could ponder that to her profit, it's true (before she's replaced on the Huntington beat by reviewer-cum-publicist Joel Brown, who's obviously warming up for the role in the wings). But she was quite right to perceive that despite its stunning production, Pirates! often mauls Gilbert and Sullivan. And if it truly updated this classic, it would be as exciting as it sometimes is entertaining.

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