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Chicago’s Hypocrites, local playwrights featured at Emerging America Festival

Rob McLean and Matt Kahler in the Hypocrites’ “Pirates of Penzance,” an update of the Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera — with a nod to “Lord of the Flies.”

Matthew Gregory Hollis

Rob McLean and Matt Kahler in the Hypocrites’ “Pirates of Penzance,” an update of the Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera — with a nod to “Lord of the Flies.”

Think of groundbreaking American contemporary theater, and “The Pirates of Penzance” isn’t exactly the first thing that comes to mind.

But one of the top spots at the third annual Emerging America Festival next week goes to a production of the 19th-century Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera by Chicago troupe the Hypocrites.

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“I was raised a theater snob — in college, I mean, not when I was a younger child,” says the wry Sean Graney, a Saugus native and Emerson College graduate who is the founding artistic director of the Hypocrites. “There was always a disdain, that serious drama geeks were not going to like Gilbert and Sullivan. But I listened to ‘Pirates of Penzance’ in depth and read the libretto over and over and over, and I was just, like, this thing is awesome.”

J. Stratton McCrady

Marianna Bassham and Georgia Lyman in “The Hotel Nepenthe.’’

A joint effort of the American Repertory Theater, the Huntington Theatre Company, and the Institute of Contemporary Art, the Emerging America Festival, running Thursday through June 24, promises cutting-edge performances by American artists. And this year’s festival may be more closely scrutinized than usual. It coincides with Theatre Communications Group’s national conference in Boston, which is expected to bring about 1,000 theater professionals from all around the country to talk about the future of the art form and the business behind it.

So how did the Hypocrites’ “Pirates of Penzance” get in there?

ART artistic director Diane Paulus and director of special projects Ari Barbanell had been hearing about the Hypocrites for a couple of years, and Barbanell went to Chicago last year to see the show. “It’s just a blast,” she says. Plus the Hypocrites specialize in exactly the sort of immersive show that the ART likes to put on at Oberon, its nightclubby second stage.

Ryan Bourque

Sean Graney directs “The Pirates of Penzance.’’

Graney directs “Pirates.” He says it “submerges the audience” in a unique experience and explores the relationship between performers and onlookers — though none of that “artistic pretension,” as he calls it, should be visible to the audience.

The Hypocrites discovered their audience’s appetite for musicals when they had a big hit with “Cabaret” a couple of seasons ago. But the rights to musicals are usually very restrictive, Graney says, which limits the ability to “change stuff around” as needed. The works of Gilbert and Sullivan, however, are in the public domain. And change stuff around he has.

“I was reading ‘Lord of the Flies’ a lot, and I made this weird connection in my head between ‘Pirates of Penzance’ and ‘Lord of the Flies,’  ” he says, beginning to laugh. “What if these 10 people ended up stuck on a beach doing ‘Pirates of Penzance’ over and over and having a lot of fun doing it, and ended up getting along instead of killing pigs and killing each other?”

That didn’t end up being the actual concept of the show, but it was enough to spur the creative team’s imaginations beyond the usual rut of puffy-shirt costumes and familiar musical arrangements. Think wacky beach party, with characters promenading in and around the audience, and playing the music themselves as they go.

“It’s faithful to Gilbert and Sullivan,” Barbanell says, “and at the same time gives it a new life.”

“Right before we opened,” Graney recalls, “I was extremely nervous about Gilbert and Sullivan fans coming to see it, and I thought they were going to be offended. It turned out the only people who were upset were the middling people who had casual relationships with Gilbert and Sullivan. People who don’t know it at all ended up loving it, and people who knew the opera inside and out ended up really having a great time.”

Originally staged in December 2010, the show was a hit. The weather may have been a contributing factor.

“I think that was part of the charm here in Chicago,” Graney says. “It would be blizzarding outside, and people would show up in their snow boots and big puffy coats and walk into this basement where we were cranking the heat to, like, 72 degrees, and there was a tiki bar, and everybody was running around in cute little bathing suits. It was fun and warm and sunny, as much as you can do that in a basement.”

Another festival event at Oberon is anything but sunny and warm. Two performances of local playwright Bill Doncaster’s “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” will offer all the low-life patois and seamy tragedy of its source, George V. Higgins’s Boston crime classic. There are kidnappings, bank robberies, and a rub-out or two, staged all around Oberon, where the play debuted last December.

“It’s a pretty straight play. It’s not an immersive piece on the page,” says Barbanell, “but Maria Silvaggi, who directs, made it work so well at Oberon, and it just seems like it was written to be in that room, which was the last thing I expected.”

Meanwhile, former Huntington playwriting fellow John Kuntz’s surreal noir “The Hotel Nepenthe” gets a new staging in the Wimberly Theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts. The premiere production by Actors’ Shakespeare Project won Elliot Norton Awards last year for best new script and best ensemble. Kuntz and the rest of the cast return for the six festival performances, but director David R. Gammons has reshaped the production, which originally fit a small venue in Davis Square.

“Up against the back wall of the stage is where the audience is,” says M. Bevin O’Gara, the Huntington’s associate producer. “We’re inverting the space, so the audience is on the stage with the set, and there’s no wall at the front of the stage, so you’re looking out at the cavernous empty space. David was really attracted to the idea of making an expansive backdrop and altering the perspective of the show.”

Other festival highlights include the scabrous 1960s monologues of Lenny Bruce in “Steve Cuiffo Is Lenny Bruce,” at Oberon for two performances, and the return of the late-night “Experiment America” at the ICA, with Mikhael Tara Garver leading a group of more than 50 performers in a combination dance party and theater event.

EMERGING AMERICA FESTIVAL

JUNE 21

The Hotel Nepenthe,

Boston Center for the Arts,

7:30 and 10:30 p.m.

Pirates of Penzance, Oberon, Cambridge, 8 p.m.

JUNE 22

The Hotel Nepenthe,

BCA, 8 p.m.

Steve Cuiffo Is Lenny Bruce, Oberon, 8 p.m.

Experiment America, Institute of Contemporary Art, 9:30 p.m. to 1 a.m.

Pirates of Penzance, Oberon, 10 p.m.

JUNE 23

The Hotel Nepenthe,

BCA, 2 and 8 p.m.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle, Oberon, 3 p.m.

Pirates of Penzance, Oberon, 6 p.m.

Steve Cuiffo Is Lenny Bruce, Oberon, 8 p.m.

The Donkey Show,

Oberon, 10:30 p.m.

JUNE 24

Join the Conversation Brunch, BCA, noon

The Hotel Nepenthe,

BCA, 2 p.m.

Pirates of Penzance, Oberon, 4 p.m.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle, Oberon, 6 p.m.

Festival closing party, Oberon, 8:30 p.m.

Festival passes: $50 and $85. Individual events:

$5-$25. www.emergingamerica

festival.com, 866-811-4111.

Joel Brown can be reached at
jbnbpt@gmail.com.
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