When you walk into the Pasadena Playhouse for the currently running Hypocrites production of Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance, you know immediately you are not seeing a traditional production of this work. Beach balls are flying, there’s a tiki bar on stage and the audience sits either in risers on three sides of the stage or in and amongst the players and the action. Before the show officially starts the players are singing songs not usually associated with this work. While it might seem like something Harold Hecuba directed for Gilligan’s Island, it is actually faithful to the intent of its composers. And that suits Matt Kahler just fine.
Kahler plays The Major General, about whom he says, “With the Major General I think there are things he knows and there are things he doesn’t know and he’s just saying them. The more I play the Major General, the more I think he’s a fibber. I think he has a much better heart.”
For the uninitiated there are two things to understand. First is the plot which, simply put, is about whether a young man, Freddy (Doug Pawlik) who is presently a pirate, is still obligated to continue as one. He has reached his 21st birthday and on that day he is no longer bound by an agreement to be a pirate. Unfortunately it is revealed that having been born on the 29th of February, he had only five birthdays, not 21. He remains loyal to the pirates even if that means he cannot marry the lovely Mabel (Dana Omar), daughter of The Major General.
Secondly, the show-stopping number in Pirates is the linguistically complicated and rhythmically bent song “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General.” That song belongs to Kahler.
“I would love to say that I learned what all of these things are,” he reveals over the phone when asked about the lyrics of the song. “I went through the first year and learned what everything meant. It’s this balance between muscle memory and staying present in the moment so you are communicating the story clearly. It’s very easy to go on auto-pilot with that song, especially when you are accompanying yourself.”
The cast does accompany itself through this unique production. “When we first started in Chicago in 2010,” Kahler says, “most of the people involved did not play their instrument. Now everyone is a massively better musician. It was a little tricky, but I keep the strumming pattern pretty simple on ‘…Major General.’”
Playing amongst the audience has lent itself to some unique moments and opportunities to adlib. “On opening night we had a little girl who got in the pool with me at the top of the second act,” Kahler says. “In the scene I’m crying. I asked if she wanted to stay or get out. ‘I want to say, but what’s going to happen’ she asked. I took her through the next five minutes and she was totally down. This was a five-year-old who had acted in a play, but it was her first time at a theatre. She got sad with me and played with the ducks and put ducks on people’s head. We had a fellow jump up with the Pirate King and was singing along. Shawn Pfautsch, who plays the part, says in mid-song, ‘that’s my solo’ and went right back on with the number. The audience is the 11th cast member and that cast member changes every night.”
How does Kahler think Gilbert and Sullivan would respond if they found themselves at this production? “I think if Gilbert were alive he’d love what we’re doing. We stay true to Gilbert’s philosophy; the essence of the show is still just as zany and absurd and satirical as it has always been. Instead of turning it on its head it’s about communicating the music and story in a modern way that still stays true to the classic production.”
The other goal, according to The Hypocrites, is to reintroduce communal connection into contemporary theatre. “We are all on our screens,” says Kahler. “I’ve got my screen in my hand talking to you. I think it’s really important that we do introduce communal experiences that are live. Being part of a communal theatre audience means you are all looking in the same direction. You are sitting with different people and watching from different angles. I worry about what technology does to us as a society of human beings, especially in terms of empathy and shared emotional connection and the ability to relate to others outside of ourselves. In our production of Pirates the biggest virtue on display is acceptance and kindness. You have these very flawed characters and everybody ends up happy. There’s a lot of love and joy on display and its infectious. There is a shared spirituality when you are in the theatre.”
It would appear that Matt Kahler and The Hypocrites have more than just a smattering of elemental strategy.
Pirates of Penzance runs through February 25th at the Pasadena Playhouse.
Photo Credit: Jenny Graham