2014 Edmonton Fringe Review: May & Alia do Pirates! (of Penzance)

Pirates of Penzance is one of the most memorable works from the immortal duo of Gilbert and Sullivan. "The Crown Jewel in the musical theatre oeuvre" insists one of the performers. It cannot, absolutely cannot, she insists, be done in less than an hour by two people. Indeed, she's correct, but the attempt seen in May & Alia do Pirates! (of Penzance)is a jolly good try, as the Major-General might have proclaimed.

May and Alia are two chubby Australian girls, and frankly I don't know which one of them was which. Let's say Alia was the redhead and we'll move on. In that case, May is the one with the stronger singing voice. As the play opens, May wants to pack up and go home since they didn't bring their costumes, their sets, or indeed their cast. Alia, however, soldiers her to play on, and they pick up on the basic elements of the plot.

As quite often happens with these "sped up versions" of the play, it only works if you already know the source material (and the other two people I went with didn't) and the more you know it the better. Since I tend to get Penzance and Pinafore mixed up alreay, this probably didn't help. If you are planning on going, you'd best get yourself up to speed. We open of course in that dreaded pirate cove of...Cornwall...where Frederic the Pirate (the girls shift around playing all the characters, same as in The War of 1812, though Alia tries to play the part more than anybody else) is proud to announce that at midnight his service to the dreaded pirates with whom he has been interned will expire, and he will fulfill the duty he always dreamed: joining the Royal Navy and helping exterminate the piracy menace from shore to shore. The pirates do convince him to explain what weakness they have (he does, after all, have almost half an hour of loyal service to them left) and he lets them know that the "we never harm orphans" policy seems to have leaked out to the general population.

This is one of the many points the show takes a break, and May declares she wrote a massive algorithm which scoured the globe to find the perfect person (with the right mix of "swash" and "buckle") to play the Pirate King, one of the stage's most sought after roles. He needs to be tall, dark, handsome, rougeish, sultry...and therefore quite clearly the most perfect person on the planet to play the role is...her.

Regardless, soon Frederic and his housemaid Ruth (she's 47, he's 21, Gilbert and Sullivan predicted Demi Moore decades ahead of their time) who's always been horny for him are going with the pirates to spy on some lovely lasses. The pirates come in with family-friendly rape on the brain, but the girls warn them that their father is nearby...to which, of course, we get to everybody's favourite part of any Penzance performance: the Major-General's Song.

Before we get to that part, let's all quickly enjoy of course the full song from the 1921 recording...the earliest known recording, though we always keep hoping an older one will pop up:

There, that was fun. May and Alia agree, and May proceeds to begin the song...partway through, Alia also dons a mustache and the two of them have a high speed "Modern Major General singoff" that is the highlight of the show. It always is. After the Major-General and his daughters and Frederic go to the old church to hide from the Pirates, the girls on-stage have an argument and break up...Alia leaves May alone on stage to perform the entire play. It does give a bit of a dramatic structure to the performance itself (as in all these adaptations, we aren't exactly waiting to learn what happens next...Frederic is going to learn he was born on a leap year, there's going to be a silly pirate fight with policemen, the pirates are going to turn out just to be noblemen in funny hats not actually performing any piracy...what we will need is something to catch our interest), with the obvious downside that now a single actor is having to play all of the parts and therefore rises and falls on her performance. May does a good enough job during her solo part of the show, but the work doesn't really get its energy back until Alia comes back with the Pirate King hat so we can learn the leap-year bit. This is another of the good parts of the show, where Alia starts explaining the science behind the leap year and only slightly avoids in the tiniest number of aspects to just barely get everything completely wrong. Now that the two are together again, we can get to the pirate battle. (Also Frederic leaves to rejoin the pirates, tells them the Major-General's not an orphan, outrage, revenge, yadda yadda yadda)

This is the major bit of the audience participation bit where the policemen and the pirates face off. Half the audience were the police shouting "allo allo what's all this about then?" at the key point in their song and the other half the pirates chanting "yo ho ho and a bottle of rum". Yeah, only one of these is a cultural hallmark, go figure. At the end, the policemen defeat the pirates (wait, what?) and the big reveals about the noblemen pirates comes out, though its hard I think for the modern audience to fully grasp the gag there. And with that, barely 50 minutes later, May and Alia are trying to pose with you for pirate photos you can tag on Twitter.

The show did have a lot of manic energy to it, and the two castmates did what they could within their limitations. Some of the extra material, including a lot of the confrontation scenes, were clearly tried to coincide with the dramatic rhythm of the play though they didn't always work quite so well. Again, for the two people I went with they left wholly unsatisfied, they were trying to ultimately keep up with two stories and one of them was perpetually going on fast-forward.

Final word: A rousing but short retelling of Gilbert & Sullivan, if you don't already know the source material at least superficially, you're going to find this short work didn't give you as much entertainment as you'd paid for.

(for more reviews of the 2014 Edmonton Fringe, click here)