The ensemble cast of "The Mikado." (Photo by Matthew Gregory Hollis)

The Very Model of Modern Gilbert and Sullivan

The Hypocrites’ plucky, stripped-down takes on the G&S canon have become something of a sensation, and now they’re running them in a three-ring rep.

CHICAGO: Beach balls and banjoleles weren’t around when Gilbert and Sullivan penned their operettas in the late 1800s, but that doesn’t stop The Hypocrites from using them in their adventurous takes on the duo’s work. Throw in some kiddie pools, maybe a mouth harp or two, and stage it promenade-style with the actors surrounding the audience and you get an idea of what it’s like to spend time with Gilbert and Sullivan through the Hypocrites’ eyes.

When the Chicago-based company started incorporating musicals into their repertoire, founding artistic director Sean Graney struggled to find shows in the public domain. His aesthetic relies on an improv-driven collaboration in the rehearsal room in order to create an original adaptation—and artists can’t change a word of Rodgers and Hammerstein. So Graney decided to give G&S a try.

“I’d never given them much credit,” Graney remembers, adding that he always saw G&S as “serious theatre artists.” “Then I listened to Pirates of Penzance, and I fell in love. Why had this been hidden from me for so long? It’s subversive! They talk about the foibles of the hierarchy of society without being too heavy-handed about it.”

Inspired by John Doyle, Graney chose to use the actor/musician model, with 10 performers on instruments. Reducing the operatic scores for “nine jerks on guitar” proved challenging. “There was a lot of banging our heads against the wall that first year,” Graney adds.

In fact, Pirates proved to be a huge success in 2010 and has since been performed at theatres across the country, including Massachusetts’s American Repertory Theatre in 2013 and Kentucky’s Actors Theater of Louisville in 2014. The company brought it back in 2011 and in 2012, this time adding The Mikado, which was also well received and played at the Steppenwolf Garage in 2013. This year, they’re making it a trifecta with H.M.S. Pinafore, which will play in rep with Pirates and Mikado at the Den Theatre through Feb. 7.

“People can see straight productions of H.M.S. Pinafore all over the world, but they rarely see a production that captures the spirit of the material,” Graney maintains. “They were really the first pop songwriters,” posits company member Matt Kahler, who appears in all three shows and is co-arranging the score for Pinafore. However, while Kahler calls the shows “a lot of joy wrapped in a bottle,” he says they’re trying to play against some of the pre-existing preciousness in Pinafore. “We’re trying to un-cute it just a little bit,” he says.

Still, there’ll be plenty of G&S-style happiness and joy on tap this winter, providing audiences a welcome antidote for the often sub-zero temperatures in the Windy City. “You’re walking to the theatre and you feel like you’re on Mars,” jokes Kahler. “You get into the theatre and the lights come up on this production and people go what the hell? This is amazing!”

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