When is an adaptation no longer an adaptation but a whole new work? This question came to me as I was experiencing the Hypocrites’ latest production, described in the program as an adaptation of Gilbert and Sullivan’s 1878 classic H.M.S. Pinafore and presented in repertory with remounts of The Mikado and The Pirates of Penzance. Usually when directors adapt an old chestnut they monkey with the setting, putting Hamlet in 21st-century Japan, say. This can create the illusion that we’re watching something new without making us think or feel anything new about the work.
What director Sean Graney does with Pinafore is so daring, so thoroughgoing that it’s really a total transformation. To start with, he flips genders—all the sailors and officers are women, and the maidenly love interest at the center of the plot is a man.
The action still takes place onboard the H.M.S. Pinafore, but in Graney’s version the audience is aboard the ship too, either sitting in seats along the sides of the boat or milling around on deck among the actors. Michael Smallwood’s ingenious set manages to suggest both a seagoing vessel and a playground (in the middle of the stage is a huge slide), while also providing the audience with plenty of places to lean, sit, or laze (poles, benches, a pillow pit) while they watch the action around them. Matt Kahler and Andra Velis Simon have similarly transformed the look and feel of the show by reorchestrating Sullivan’s music, cutting the band down to a handful of instruments played by strolling musicians, many of whom also act.
To further cloud our sense of where we are, designer Alison Siple dresses the players in pajamas and fuzzy slippers (well, some also get bathrobes) to give the production the feel of a sleepover. Graney and company set the tone for a party in the preshow, performing unplugged versions of pop hits as the audience settles in.
The result is a production that Gilbert and Sullivan purists might not even recognize. To my mind that’s a good thing. Traditional Gilbert and Sullivan productions are too often staid and stuffy, with lots of bad British accents and late-Victorian affectations. Here the performers are relaxed; they let the comedy flow out of their characters. And Graney has packed his cast with singer/actors who know how to have a good time onstage.
One of the revelations of Graney’s “adaptation” is how much of Gilbert’s comedy survives and even thrives in this redo. Though it’s not surprising that the topsy-turvy version of the love story works: Dana Omar and Doug Pawlik have considerable charm as, respectively, the humble tar Ralphina and her beloved Joseph, the captain’s sweet son.
I didn’t leave this Pinafore humming Sullivan’s tunes. I did find myself hoping the inspired craziness would never end.