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In this ‘Mikado,’ there’s no such thing as too absurd

Shawn Pfautsch and Emily Casey in “The Mikado.”
Shawn Pfautsch and Emily Casey in “The Mikado.” Evan Hanover

The last time the Hypocrites brought their zany take on Gilbert & Sullivan to Cambridge, beachballs went flying all over the Loeb Drama Center. That was in May 2013, when the Chicago-based theater troupe offered its Caribbean-themed adaptation of “The Pirates of Penzance.” This time around, the Hypocrites are taking on the most popular of the Gilbert & Sullivan operettas, “The Mikado,” and though there might not be beachballs, founding artistic director Sean Graney, over the phone from Chicago, says you can expect balloons.

“Every time a balloon is popped,” he adds, “people cheer.”

“The Mikado,” which opens Tuesday and runs through April 5, represents the Hypocrites’ fourth visit to town. They did “Pirates” at Oberon in 2012, reprised it at the Loeb in 2013, and then brought two Shakespeare adaptations, “Romeo Juliet” and “12 Nights,” to Oberon last year. It’s a homecoming for Graney, who grew up in Saugus and graduated from Emerson College. After moving to Chicago, he says, he observed the theater companies “were tied to a certain philosophy that made their productions limited. I wanted to make a company that could just do whatever we wanted.”

The Hypocrites began with works by Absurdist playwrights like Beckett, Büchner, and Ionesco, but even those productions were never limited. From the start, Graney recalls, “We’ve always questioned our relationship to the audience, and we’ve always tried to give them an experience that they weren’t necessarily getting at the larger theaters.”

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He explains that he was attracted to the Gilbert & Sullivan operettas because they’re in the public domain. “I wanted something I could adapt, and you can’t do that with ‘Cabaret’ or ‘Carousel.’ So I listened to and read ‘Pirates of Penzance,’ and I said, ‘This is amazing, it’s brilliant, it’s so intelligent, and respectfully subversive to society in a way that’s not mean-spirited.’ ”

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“The Mikado,” he says, is Gilbert & Sullivan at their best. “The music is beautiful, the songs are wonderful, the story is so convoluted and so crazy and so ridiculous, there’s so much celebration in the way that they look at this world.” That world is Gilbert & Sullivan’s imagined feudal Japan. In 1885, when “The Mikado” premiered, the Victorians were enamored of all things Japanese, and the operetta pokes fun at the fad. It’s a satire of what’s going on in England, not Japan, but to avoid any hint of racism, Graney says, “We’ve cut any mention of Japan. We do have a town called Titipu, but Titipu looks like a circus.”

The Hypocrits founding artistic director Sean Graney.
The Hypocrits founding artistic director Sean Graney. Ryan Bourque

What they haven’t cut is much of the original material, even though this version will run just 80 minutes. Graney says that a few songs were dropped, but mostly they were shortened. “And we didn’t cut a lot of the book scenes. They were either really super-funny or really informational.”

The 10 performers have to do it all: act, sing, and play the instruments. Emily Casey will portray Yum-Yum, who’s in love with the Mikado’s son, Nanki-Poo, but has been betrothed to the Lord High Executioner, Ko-Ko.

Casey, also on the phone from Chicago, says she joined the Hypocrites by auditioning for “Pirates” in 2009. Born in the Chicago suburb of Wheaton, she attended Hope College in Michigan, lived in New York for a couple of years, then moved back to Chicago, where between 2007 and 2009, she says, “I worked at Navy Pier as a walk-around character and did all sorts of odd jobs. I was also a preschool teacher for a year.”

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So by her own admission, she didn’t have the most prepossessing résumé. She didn’t even know very much about Gilbert & Sullivan when she auditioned. On the other hand, she points out, “My dad was a musician, and I grew up the oldest of seven kids, and everybody was raised to play a stringed instrument. I grew up playing the violin and the guitar.” She auditioned with those instruments, was cast as one of Mabel’s sisters, and wound up playing the ukulele in the show.

For this engagement, the Hypocrites are back at Oberon, where they’ll present “The Mikado” in what they call their “promenade style.” Casey notes that there will be some seating areas, and places on the set where you can sit “if you can find a spot to perch.” But most of the audience members will be standing as the performers move about them. Casey says that having an audience member in the way is not a problem so much as “an opportunity to engage and create a moment, maybe just between the two of you, or maybe something that everybody can enjoy.”

Something else that everybody can enjoy is the Hypocrites’ penchant for unlikely double casting. In “Pirates,” Christine Stulik played both Ruth and Mabel. There’ll be more of that in “The Mikado,” Casey says. She herself is playing another major character in addition to Yum-Yum. “It’s so silly and such a treat. I love the music, and I love singing ‘The sun whose rays.’ It’s the best, it’s so much fun.”

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The Hypocrites have also adapted “H.M.S. Pinafore,” but Graney says that on the company’s next visit we’re more likely to see an adaptation of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” What he’d really like to do here, he adds, is the Hypocrites’ 12-hour, 17-cast-member Greek extravaganza called “All Our Tragic.”

“But so far, no takers!”


Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at jeffreymgantz@gmail.com.