As a director, Westmont College professor John Blondell has received acclaim on two continents (so far) for his incisive interpretations of the plays of William Shakespeare. But for his latest production, he is turning to a very different part of the British theatrical canon.
Setting aside iambic pentameter for patter songs, he will he will stage the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta The Pirates of Penzance for the next two weekends at Westmont’s Porter Theatre.
It’s a surprising choice, but his approach to the material is typically contrarian. He is the very model of a modern stage iconoclast.
The story of a young man who is devoted to the notion of duty but isn’t at all sure where his loyalties should lie, The Pirates of Penzance premiered in London on New Year’s Eve, 1879. When this clever-but-dated satire of Victorian society is staged today, it is usually in a make-fun-of-the-material kind of way, with exaggerated acting and plenty of slapstick. The 1980s Broadway revival, which was made into a movie starring Kevin Kline, falls into that category.
But Blondell is taking a very different approach. “The actor/singers are playing the situations for real,” he said. “We’re trying to coax out from underneath the 19th-century artifice a play that’s funny and moving. I think it’ll have a different kind of pull on the audience if we play it a little more seriously — not so detached and distant.
“Of course, it’s not Lear,” he added quickly. “In some ways, it feels like a precursor to Monty Python. There’s a comic absurdity to the situations. I want to bring out the freshness in that. A lot of the humor arises from the wit and wordplay, and from the quirkiness of the characters.”
This is small-scale Gilbert and Sullivan: A cast of 17, an orchestra of 10. “Actors will be ripping costumes on and off as they go from being pirates to policemen to daughters,” he said. “It’s almost like a bunch of people have decided to get together and do a house concert.”
But why is Blondell — who is just back from a directing assignment in Eastern Europe, and is preparing to take two productions to a Shakespeare Festival in Beijing next year — doing something this lightweight?
“Some of the first shows I directed were musicals,” he explained. “I’ve been feeling a desire to get back into that. I also have a number of students right now who are terrific actors and really good singers.”
Besides, he added, doing musical theater presents its own set of interesting challenges.
“I’m trying to tell the story in a visual way, while also showing off the music,” he said. “There are lots of scenes in which there’s not a whole lot of action or movement. I want to give people something interesting to watch, but to not have what they’re watching take away from what is happening musically.”
John Blondell directs The Pirates of Penzance October 17-19, 23, and 26-27 in Westmont’s Porter Theatre. Call (805) 565-7140 or visit westmont.edu/boxoffice for tickets and info.