'Pirates' anchored by strong performances

March 23, 2009
This week, pirates take over Indianapolis Opera, and a trio of plays isn't the half of it at the Humana Festival of New American Plays.

There is no logical reason for a man to be accidentally indentured to a pirate king because of a minor error...and stay on board for years. There is no logical reason for a group of pirates to suddenly turn soft when confronted with orphans ... of any age. There is no logical reason for much of what happens in "The Pirates of Penzance" ... and just about any Gilbert & Sullivan operetta, for that matter.

Such in-your-face illogic is one of the pleasures of the form.

But I'd like to add another—one specific to Indianapolis Opera's production of the oft-staged work: There is no logical reason why the Second Act duet between would-be pirate Frederic and willful young Mabel should be so lovely ... and so moving.

Tender, emotionally true and providing a glimpse of a beating heart below all of the silliness, the gleeful musical pomposity, and the lyric pyrotechnics, the powerful few minutes had the near-capacity Clowes Hall crowd riveted.

Soon enough, the laughs were back, which was as it should be. But this glimpse of beauty helped raise this production from very good to very memorable. It is one of the unheralded wonders of operetta-done-well that such an emotional pull can sneak up and take your breath away.

Credit Matthew Chellis—with a jaw like a young David Hasselhoff—and Heather Buck as the fated couple, both able to comfortably bring such extremes into their performances, all the while staying committed not just to character but also to vocal excellence.

The rest of the cast also found the right tone. Jennifer Roderer had spirit and a great comic face for the maid Ruth (anybody else remember comic actress Marilyn Sokol?). As the Pirate King, Sean Anderson became more playful as the show went on, and Robert Orth as the Major General was, well, how many opera stars can include the ability to do the splits on their list of skills? Plus, I don't think anybody would have complained if W.S. Gilbert had given him 12 more verses of his tongue-twisting entrance song.


Count on it—Around this time each year I'll be trekking south to visit the Humana Festival of New American Plays at the Humana Festival in Louisville—and encouraging you to do the same. That's because, often, outstanding work (the Pulitzer-Prize winning "Dinner with Friends," for instance, and the recent off-Broadway hit "Becky Shaw") is introduced there and, even when it isn't, the event is always worthwhile.

This year, I picked the three shows that looked the most likely to have a life beyond their original productions—and saw them all in a day.

The first, "Absalom," by Zoe Kazan, was a head-scratcher not because it was difficult to follow or featured baffling directorial or acting choices, but because the material was so familiar, the characters so trite, and the events so Theater Construction 101.

A family patriarch is having a tell-all autobiography published. His adult children—a plain-Jane, trapped-at-home daughter; a second-rate talent younger son; an older son who not only lost a child in an accident but also has cancer; and an estranged adoptee gone Hollywood—gather for the event. Secrets are revealed with yawn-provoking predictability, and an on-stage apple tree (yes, one of the sons is named Adam) is a credit to the designers rather than the writers.

Peter Michael Goetz (You might recall him as the father of the groom in the "Father of the Bride" movies) does remarkable work against the odds in the role, but it's to little avail. I'd hate to think that family ties got the playwright the gig (grandpop was legendary theater and film director Elia Kazan), but there's no evidence in this show to suggest otherwise.

Far stronger was Naomi Wallace's "The Hard Weather Boating Party," which finds unexpected poetry in a trio of would-be criminals seen pre-crime in Act One and post-crime in Act Two. All three actors (Michael Cullen, Jesse J. Perez and Kevin Jackson) are marvelous, and together with director Joe Bonney, they find just the right rhythm for Wallace's words.

Warning: "The Hard Weather Boating Party" is one of those plays easily ruined by an author's explanation. I'm glad I didn't read her comments until after seeing it.

You'll debate long after the show whether the final, unexpected design decision adds or takes away from the taut, hotel-room-bound action that came before. The surprise struck me on an emotional level as it was happening, but the logistics of making it work ultimately drained the impact and tipped the balance too strongly in favor of two of the three characters.

I know I'm being vague, but I don't want to spoil it for those who make the trek down Interstate 65.

The third piece—and the most likely to see life beyond Louisville—is "Slasher," by Allison Moore. While it could use a little of Kazan's play construction ability and Wallace's knack for original character details, the play is nonetheless a kick.

Sheena, an Austin, Texas, waitress with a limited future is pulled into the orbit of a low-budget filmmaker whose lead actress has bolted.

You see where this is going. Trashy actress will get the part. Dialogue will ensue in which characters either rationalize or speak out against the sadistic sexism of the slasher genre, etc. The heroine will ultimately rethink her own attitude toward personal empowerment.

But the playwright avoids the preachiness that the subject matter might inspire. Instead, she substitutes, well, that's hard to say. But I appreciated that the play avoided the obvious and didn't make clear any creative agenda.

What to make of a play that comments on the objectification of women by putting its scantily clad heroine in real danger? And if we are to have contempt for the opportunistic jerk director character, what of the fact that Sheena's protective, feminist ideologue mother is even crazier?

As far as the blood and guts, well, when I saw the bathtub full of blood in Act 2, I expected, well, a blood bath. Then again, maybe I'm still jaded from Theatre on the Square's gory production of "Evil Dead: The Musical."

Don't get me wrong. "Slasher" is a fun and engaging evening of theater, featuring plenty of laughs both inherent in the script and in the solid performances. Look for it (after, I hope, some rewrites) at a theater near you sometime around 2011.
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