Spinning surf and sun into ‘Pirates of Penzance’

Abigail Larson

Augustana Theater’s most recent production premiered on April 8th as the first theater performance at the Ruth and Lefty Anderson Pavillion. The show, “Pirates of Penzance” was directed by junior Noah Hill, who offered a new spin on the over century-old operetta.
Hill’s decision to pursue “Pirates of Penzance” for the student-directed show came from its availability in the public domain, and his desire to show that older scripts can be just as exciting as newer pieces. 
To achieve this excitement, Hill chose to put a 60s surf twist on the show. Instead of normal period costumes, the show featured androgynous swimwear, along with set pieces of netting and water gun props.
This twist was inspired by a previous performance Hill had seen of “Pirates of Penzance,” at the Pasadena Playhouse in Pasadena, California, which utilized random props, one of which was a beach ball, to support the show. From that beach ball, Hill formulated an entire 60s beach movie idea that eventually came to the stage this spring at Augustana.
According to Hill, there are many reasons a spin like this fits well with the original script. The entirety of the show takes place on or near the sea, making surf and sand a logical companion to the play. Additionally, the show features groups pitted against each other, similar to the plot of many old surf movies. However instead of surfers versus bikers, “Pirates of Penzance” features the pirates versus the daughters and policemen.
Also drawing from the features of beach movies was the comedic style of the show. Much like the over-exaggerated acting found in the movies, the piece featured dramatic, animated reactions and silly characters. 
All of these elements combined led to a lighthearted experience for the actors and audience.
“You’re not supposed to take it seriously, you’re just supposed to have fun with it,” Hill said.
However, it was not all fun for the cast and crew during the rehearsal process. Such an ambitious performance came with challenges in several areas.
At the forefront of these challenges lies the difficulty and size of the piece itself. The older show came with complex music and dialogue and had a smaller cast than a usual performance would due to COVID-19. On top of the challenging music, the cast had choreography to learn and execute while singing.
“I remember our first rehearsal, it ended and everybody was scared to death like ‘How are we going to do this?’ because it’s a really big show,” Hill said.
Other concerns for the show revolved around the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Though the cast and crew never had to deal with the problem directly, COVID-19 policies did alter how they went about rehearsal. If the outdoor space was unavailable, rehearsals could only operate in thirty-minute increments with time in-between for the room to air scrub.
Though the outdoor rehearsals and performances allowed the production to occur with minimal concern surrounding COVID-19, it also meant the show was at the mercy of Mother Nature. 
With rehearsals starting in March, it was often too cold to practice outdoors, and more recently rain had become an issue. While the surf twist on the show may suggest that the precipitation is welcome, the show’s accompanying pit made up of piano, drums, and ukulele could not always brave the weather.
Despite these challenges, “Pirates of Penzance” persevered.
“Ultimately, it was about putting on a show and just being able to do theater at all, because that hasn’t been able to be done since the pandemic started,” stage manager and junior Rebecca McNamar said.
The show went on for the enjoyment of the audience, but the cast and crew as well. Many involved in the show, including musical director and junior Ariela Policastro, mentioned the joy of working with such a fun and patient cast. 
“There’s a stereotype that in theater there’s always a lot of drama between the cast or the production team or anything like that, but this time around everything went so smoothly, and I could not be more grateful for that,” Policastro said.