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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Saturday, June 15, 2024

Gender-swapped performance of 'H.M.S. Pinafore' premieres at ART's Oberon theater

An illustration of a scene from H.M.S. Pinafore from the original theatre poster and playbill created for the original production in 1878 at the Opera Comique in London.

There’s nothing like spending a night relaxing from midterm stress in a pit full of pillows with a Moscow mule and a plethora of stuffed animals. The fun begins at the American Repertory Theater’s (ART) Oberon theater with Chicago-based troupe The Hypocrites’ rendition of "H.M.S. Pinafore" (1878) as soon as you step into the black box theater.Actors dressed in pajama party attire walk around the space, performing modern hits like Icona Pop’s “I Love It” (2012) and the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back” (1969) on their assortment of guitars, mandolins and ukuleles. They joke with the audience, traipsing around with an assured confidence and jovial manner that make it easy for the newcomers trickling in to get accustomed to the unusual setup of the theater.

Those who did not pay to sit at the tables on the sides of the room are encouraged to sit on any of the stage props -- the actors and the audience share the same space throughout the show. This reconception of audience interaction creates a sense of camaraderie between audience members as well as between actors and the audience. Within minutes of getting comfortable, fellow audience members were arranging stuffed animals at the edge of the slide that sits above the “pool” -- really a pillow pit -- essentially creating a kind of bowling activity for others descending into the fluffy bed of blue plush. Actors will point to the locations they are moving towards, often cajoling audience members into scrambling quickly to relocate, creating a dynamic of play that perpetuates a flow of movement around the set, as audience members are encouraged to switch seats whenever they like and actors continually move about with different props and playing numerous musical instruments.

"H.M.S. Pinafore" is a comedic opera by W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan that pokes fun at classist divides that, in this case, prevent people from being with the people they love. This rendition is updated for a modern audiencewith references to interns, Grumpy Cat and Bronies, adorning the captain with seafoam green half frame glasses. It also deftly swaps the gender of all of the players in the show: sailors become sail’resses, the leader of the British Navy is now Admiral Dame Jo-Anne Porter (Christine Sulik) and a large man in pink frocks named Li’l Buttercup (Matt Kahler) frolics about. The story surrounds the son of the ship’s captain, Joseph(Doug Pawlik). Joseph is engaged to marry the much older Admiral Dame Jo-Anne Porter but falls in love with common sail’ress Ralphina (Dana Omar) and is strugling to choose whether to follow his mother’s orders or to follow his heart. The plot may seem trite, but through taking nothing seriously, as manifested in the colorful night caps and puppy-shaped slippers of the actors, the show exceeds as an entertaining, other-worldly farce.

It’s particularly satisfying to watch the character of young Joseph exhibit typical feminine traits. He’s a little whiny and indecisive; his primary redeemable trait, which is reiterated repeatedly throughout the show, is being a “good boy” who always follows his “mumsy’s” orders. Pawlik believably expresses these qualities, thus challenging notions of gendered stereotypes as Omar deftly handles comedy and sincerity in a way that makes the audience really root for the happiness of the protagonists. Dot Dead-Eye (Kate Carson-Groner), the clownish figure attempting to break up the young couple, eerily foils plans while playing her ominous accordion.

"H.M.S. Pinafore" succeeds because it is a communal experience -- everyone is in on the joke together. It is not often that one sees a show and gets to intimately interact with the actors and other audience members in such a way. The small scale of the set ensures that audience members must crowd together on benches or a bed, fostering a sense of togetherness by breaking general theatrical norms and decreasing the amount of space between strangers. Whether throwing pillows or stuffed animals around the stage or confessing their woes to an unexpecting spectator, the actors make full use of the communal stage. It’s a kind of entertainment that is meant to be shared. Whether connecting to fellow audience members or bringing a friend along for the experience, audiences weren't disappointed by this convivial respite from reality.

The show ran from March 8 to March 20 at the ART's Oberon theater in Cambridge.