February 5, 2004

Laughs Ahoy!

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If you have ever visited Ithaca’s Kitchen Theatre or merely browsed the website you will inevitably be familiar with the slogan, “The most important conversations of our lives happen in the Kitchen.” Until now, I’ve struggled to relate wholeheartedly with the important parallel between my favorite downtown getaway and the place in which I used to scarf down my Cheerios.

For me, the important conversations were reserved for long car rides with my father or over the phone with my mother; my kitchen, on the other hand, was more often filled with laughter than learning. And so, the perpetual giggle provided by Rachel Lampert’s adaptation of The Pirates of Penzance has now made this Kitchen’s slogan strike home.

With a cast built mainly of Ithaca College students, it is apparent that all the actors are on the same page. The majority of the operetta’s humor is written through the ensembles of either the band of pirates or the Major General’s daughters, and in both cases the individuals within these groups function wonderfully essentially as a single comic stereotype.

For anyone unfamiliar with Gilbert and Sullivan’s classic, the story concerns a group of pirates with a somewhat crucial lack of killer instinct who come across four beautiful daughters of a Major General. At first, seemingly helpless before the swashbuckling antics of the pirates, the daughters see no way out. However, a true love connection between a pirate who wants out, Frederick, and the oldest daughter, Mabel, gives the girls an inside track to the pirates’ weakness. The story is filled with unexpected twists and turns that clearly satisfy children and adults alike. Not only have I never seen such a plethora of attentive children at the Kitchen, but for so many seats to be filled by such a range of age groups on Superbowl Sunday is a further testament to Lampert’s clever and manageable adaptation and the word of mouth that is evidently spreading through town about it.

Although each actor’s performance made me laugh for the right reasons, two performances drew the intimate spotlight of the cave-like theatre. John Hager’s Pirate King was the clear result of an actor who had done his homework on both the style of play and his character, and he complimented it with a natural talent to entertain. Furthermore, Hager delivered this performance without jeopardizing the pirates’ chorus-esque role.

The play’s other stand-out was Erica Steinhagen (a Kitchen Theatre regular) as Mabel. Steinhagen’s beautiful singing voice in the confines of the Kitchen is probably best described as the vocal equivalent of ten tons of gold in a five ton bag. In other words, I doubt that anyone needed to tell Steinhagen that she should project her voice to the top-back corner of the room for everyone to hear her clearly.

Credit, too, should be given to Zachary James’ Major-General, at the very least for his rendition of “I’m the Very Model of a Modern Major-General.” This mouthful of a tune may be better known by students as the same one used in chemistry classes which incorporates all the elements of the periodic table.

Still, if a chain is only as strong as its weakest link this cast need not worry, for each member sang strongly and in character throughout.

One of the play’s best moments, and most unexpected — is at the apex of the policemen’s hunt for the pirates. Hitherto, the roles of the pirates and the police were played by the same actors using swift costume changes. (The Major General’s daughters even say in curiosity upon informing the police of the pirates, “These policemen do look familiar!”). However, when the two dueling factions are finally supposed to confront one another, the play comes to a screeching halt. The actors turn to the audience, breaking the divide with a disappointing “realization” that they’ll have to let us in on their secret: that the actors were playing both roles. After a swift apology for their lack of cast members, Hager assigns cast members to each side and a slow motion battle commences.

The actors’ divide from off-stage personnel is broken once more, only this time with musical director Stefanie Maas. Maas, who has been accompanying the songs throughout on keyboard, is turned to when the pirates proclaim how they “love their Queen.” Taking a quick pause from the keys, Maas dons a crown and gives the royal wave before proceeding with her musical accompaniment.

With Pirates, Lampert has sculpted a snack-size version of a classic that premiered over 124 years ago in New York City. Apparently, though, the play is not losing its popularity, as this adaptation has been a sell out so far. So whether you’re a student with an hour to spare and in need of a laugh, or a parent wanting to introduce your child to the theatre, the Kitchen strongly recommend calling the ticket center to get a reservation for one of the precious 73 seats at each of the remaining shows on Saturday, February 7 at 11 a.m., 1 p.m., and 3 p.m.

To contact the ticket center, call 273-4497.

Archived article by Tom Britton