How far can too far go: ‘H.M.S. Pinafore’ at the Guthrie

This past weekend was the fifth anniversary of the opening of the Guthrie’s Jean Nouvel-designed space along the Mississippi River. I’ve gotten quite fond of this building. This is at least in part because I live just a few blocks from it and, since Kieran’s moved to Block E, and since the Guthrie building is open to the general public for most of the day, and since they have several bars, it’s a place I like to go and have a glass of Jameson when I’m killing time. Right now, it’s especially nice to have a drink while sitting on the so-called “endless bridge,” the theater’s belvedere that juts out toward the Mississippi and offers an unsurpassed view of the Stone Arch Bridge. It’s also frequently possible to see gangs of people sightseeing on Segways, which is always amusing, especially if you’re a little drunk. With enough Jameson, anything can seem ridiculous and, therefore, delightful.

I didn’t think I went to the Guthrie’s bars often enough for anybody to notice, but the bartender in the Target Lounge has seen me often enough to, on at least one occasion, call out “a Jameson?” on my arrival. This past Friday, she asked what I was seeing, and I told her “H.M.S. Pinafore.” I was wearing a jaunty little military-style hat, and she commented that I was dressed right for the play. “Oh, that’s nothing,” I said. “You should see my tattoos. All battleships!” I immediately regretted the comment. One must be cautious about presuming too much familiarity with somebody just because they know your taste in alcohol.

I’m not sure why the Guthrie chose this Gilbert and Sullivan operetta about star-crossed naval romance to mark its fifth anniversary, but, then, there is almost nothing about the production I can explain. It is, far and away, one of the silliest things I have ever seen onstage, which is either going to delight or exhaust you, depending on how much you enjoy silliness. In fairness, the original operetta was pretty silly to begin with, delighting in preposterous satire — this is, after all, a show whose relentless forward motion grinds to a halt right at its climax because one of the character’s says “damn,” and the operetta then proceeds to have a musical number about the inappropriateness of that sort of language.

But this isn’t Gilbert and Sullivan’s “H.M.S. Pinafore” — no, the original production was stage managed by librettist W.S. Gilbert, and he was a stickler for an unexpected sort of stage realism — he called it the “right-side-up for topsy-turvydom,” feeling that the ridiculousness of his text was best supported by rigorous realism. This version, directed by Joe Dowling, dispenses with that, setting “Pinafore” in the decidedly unrealistic environment of musical theater, on a stylized battleship, no less, just like my tattoos. “Pinafore” becomes musical theater, in part, through some terrifically funny interstitial dialogue added in by playwright Jeffrey Hatcher, but mostly it’s achieved through the work of choreographer David Bolger. The sailing men of the Pinafore don’t merely strut about the stage on bandied sea-legs, they dance, almost nonstop, a succession of modernized jigs and reels and hornpipes, at one point interrupting the show to demonstrate what the jig and reels and hornpipe eventually turned into — an extended tap dance number.

These dance numbers wouldn’t have looked out of place on a television variety show, circa 1974, and the music for the show has been re-arranged by Andrew Cooke, the resident music director of the Chanhassen Dinner Theatres. These new arrangements are not likely to please purists — they range from sounding like a live disco band to soft rock to genre pastiches, and, again, how very “Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour.” I’m no purist, and was a fan of Sonny & Cher’s show, so I found them hilarious.

O. Berdahl and Christina Baldwin in "H.M.S. Pinafore"
Photo by Michal Daniel
O. Berdahl and Christina Baldwin in “H.M.S. Pinafore”

One gets the sense that the performers showed up, heard the arrangements, saw some of the dance numbers, and said, “oh, so it’s going to be that sort of show,” and adjusted their performances accordingly. The results are utter camp — they’re like drag performances, except everybody is in the drag of their actual gender. There is, for instance, Captain Corcoran, the captain of the Pinafore, played by Robert O. Berndahl with an imposing mustache, an enormously ingratiating smile, and the physicality of one of those dolls that is held in place by a series of taught strings, and, when a plunger is depressed at the bottom of the doll, the strings go slack, causing the doll to wilt to one side or the other. He is constantly listing left or right, snapping off his dialogue in an upper class accent with the authority of one who was born to command, but really shouldn’t. When he’s not the center of attention, he’s often to one side of the set, looking naughty.

He’s paired up with Buttercup, a Cockney bumboat woman — it’s a rather rude-sounding word, but a bumboat is a small craft that ferries supplies to ships, sort of like the watergoing version of a street cart. She’s played here by Christina Baldwin in what can only be described as the largest false bosom I have ever seen onstage — at least, I presume it’s false. If not, Baldwin has been engaged in what must have been an exceptionally painful process of suppressing her natural assets for decades now, perhaps with tightly tied bandages, and how could she have pursued a career as a singer like that? How could she even breathe?

Baldwin is a comic delight in this, milking every moment for maximum silliness, and Dowling et al. give her a lot of moments. For some reason, they’ve added in an especially lusty tango that spins off into what can only be described as a erotic dream ballet, and Baldwin’s bemused-but-ecstatic exhaustion at the end of it is very nearly pornographic — not what you would expect from a play that takes umbrage at the word damn.

The whole production seems like a bit of a dare, an attempt to explore how far too far can go, and, I suppose if I have a complaint, it’s that I think it could have gone farther. The two leads in this play have always been dully written, and this production plays with that a bit, particularly by making able seaman Ralph Rackstraw (Aleks Knezevich) so squarely heroic that other cast members actually pose him like a Greek statue during the play. But if you have a character who is dull, go ahead and make him as dull as possible — have people actually fall asleep when he’s talking! And, toward the second act, little British flags start popping up here and there, and start making surprise appearances in the costumes. But, once you’ve started doing that, everything starts seeming a little Carnaby Street, and if you’re going to start down that road, you might as well go the whole way. Costume the cast like The Who, circa 1966, when Pete Townsend dressed in a suit made from the flag on the sleeve of “Substitute,” and why not? Daltry had a thing for white bellbottoms anyway — he always looked like he was one Dixie cup cap away from joining the Navy.

But “it could have been more ridiculous” isn’t much of a complaint — something can always be more ridiculous. And maybe Sullivan was right — maybe there’s only so much topsy turvy most audiences can take all at once. I’m always ready for more, but, then, I fortify myself with whiskey before a show starts. To a sober audience, this production of “H.M.S. Pinafore” may well be too much. Not me. I don’t even believe in the concept of too much. For my tastes, too far is never quite far enough.

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