Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Play: A Glorious Thing

The Pirates of Penzance (or, The Slave of Duty), Music by Arthur Sullivan, Libretto by W,S.Gilbert, directed by Bill Rauch, Music Director Daniel Gary Busby, Choreographer Randy Duncan, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Through October 8.

Of course, by now you know I have a soft spot for the works of Messrs. G and S. Their brand of operetta, a perfect match for the Mother Tongue of England, traps much of what is British in its Victorian amber and preserves it for this day. The bouncy melodies of Sullivan and the twisted logic of Gilbert is a perfect music box of the age.

And twisted the logic is. Frederic, through his nanny's hearing problem, was apprenticed to a pirate as opposed to a pilot, and is on the verge of leaving his apprenticeship, at which point he must hunt down those pirates, because that is the only honorable thing to do. Of course the pirates themselves live by a code that puts them at a bit of disadvantage - they have declared to spare orphans, and have discovered that all of their new captures declare themselve orphans. The newly-freed Frederic meets Mabel, who of all her sisters chooses to help reform him. Mabel and her sisters are the daughters of the noted modern Major General. The pirates attack the gathered family, but the Major General outwits them, the daughters are freed, Mabel and Frederic may marry, and everyone, even the pirates, are happy.

Hang on, that's only the first act. When the second act commences, the Major General is concerned about failing to live up to the expectations of his recently purchased ancestors (they came with the manse) by lying to the pirates. And Frederic is called back into service of the pirates by a calendrical mischance, and so must lead the pirates against the Major General and Mabel. And he does so, because he is a slave to his duty. And all of this is resolved with thinnest gossamer of logic, with further outrageous revelations, because this is a operetta where the destination is not nearly as important as the journey, and indeed the journey is quite nice.

The romantic leads (Eddie Lopez as Frederic, Khori Dastoor as Mabel) have to carry the bulk of the burden of unrational rationality, as Frederic is the slave of duty of the subtitle, and Mabel as loving him for his sense of duty that will force him to fight her ultimately. David Kelly dispatches the Major General with aplomb, including the one Gilbert and Sullivan piece that everyone knows, even if they never saw any Gilbert and Sullivan. Michael Elich has a bit of Johnny Depp to his Pirate King, but also channels the Rat Pack (indeed, the production takes some thematic asides and detours that I find amusing but may trouble purists (to which I say - it is Gilbert and Sullivan)). But it is Robin Goodrin Nordli, as Ruth, the Pirate Nanny, who steals almost all of her scenes and escapes with most of the comedic cutlery in the process.

What struck me most of the production was the strength of voices and acting off the essemble, top to bottom. I am a fan of our local amateur G&S Society, but I have to admit, I was more than a little blown away by how good everyone was, and how they maintained a level of madcap energy through the entire proceedings. Gilbert and Sullivan has to be taken on head on, with no flinching, (but sly winks are permitted).

Production values were fantastic as well. You saw the picture of the trust stage of the Elizabethan in an earlier entry, so every bit of scenery has to be ported directly on, and quickly. Moving from pirate ship to beach to family crypt with equal ease (seabirds flying in the first act, bats in the second) was an epic job pulled together smoothly and cleanly and effectively as well. The action runs across the entire stage, up the walls, and into the seats themselves, and pulls the audience into this strange fantasy world.

All in all, Pirates was the best of the shows down in Ashland I saw, and worth the trip.

More later,