Everything old really is new again in the The Hypocrites‘ innovative production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado at Olney Theatre Center.
When I entered the theater 30 minutes before show time the party was already in full swing. Indeed, walking through a simple doorway has never been such a transformative experience. The world outside faded away as I took in the spectacle before me: A dozen actors in colorful garb, cavorting under a fantastical circus tent of lights, singing and playing ukuleles, violins, guitars and an accordion. Folksy tunes permeated the air. Kids were frolicking in two circus rings filled with balloons while adults bought drinks at the onstage bar and families giggled while taking turns sitting on the set’s carousel horse.
Director and adaptor Sean Graney was on hand, encouraging audience members to playfully lob balloons at each other. The actors erupted into cheers each time a balloon accidentally popped. The excitement was infectious and the distinction between child and adult blurred the longer we are in the room.
Did I mention that the show hadn’t even started yet?
Rules are clearly meant to be broken in this production of The Mikado, brought to the Olney Theatre Center by the groundbreaking Chicago based theater company The Hypocrites.
First staged in 1885, The Mikado is one of the most enduring and frequently produced operettas written by librettist W.S. Gilbert and Composer Arthur Sullivan. Gilbert became famous in the 19th Century for his “topsy-turvy” style of storytelling, in which preposterous situations are introduced and then followed to highly improbable, farcical conclusions.
In The Mikado, a wandering minstrel is in love with the young maiden Yum-Yum, who, alas, is betrothed to the town executioner. Hilarity ensues as the characters try to sort out these relationships, ideally without anyone losing their head.
In the 1880s, England was in the midst of a Japanese craze and setting The Mikado in Japan, with Caucasian actors playing the Japanese roles was the order of the day. Clearly, this is problematic to the modern sensibility and many recent productions of The Mikado have taken steps to remove its controversial racial undertones.
Sean Graney’s production solves this dilemma by stripping all mention of Japan from the show without losing any of the fun. This iconoclastic staging of The Mikado aims to bring 21st Century audiences the same fresh sense of exuberance that Victorian audiences got from the original production while also removing the taint of racism.
What Graney’s production doesn’t remove is the signature wit of Gilbert’s story and lyrics. I think even the staunchest theater purist will walk away from this production feeling that despite the numerous changes, it stays true to the original zany intent of the storyline.
Another goal of this production was to create a sense of intimacy between actors and audience. Tom Burch’s set, which The Hypocrites brought from Chicago, achieves this out of the gate by employing “promenade seating” in which audience members are encouraged to sit on pieces of the set, allowing interaction between actor and spectator. Actors quickly trained patrons to scurry to another spot on the stage if their seat was needed for action. Far from distracting, this staging created the most profound sense of comradery I have ever felt in a theater. And fear not: If you don’t relish the idea of being in the spotlight, there is traditional seating as well.
Set, costumes, and lighting were of one piece in creating the immersive circus atmosphere. Two colorfully painted circus rings filled with balloons (and several children) took up the bulk of the floor area while the elevated carousel and game arcade provided a bright and quirky backdrop.
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band met circus chic in Alison Siple’s zany, atmospheric costumes. There were yellows, greens, oranges, top hats, suspenders, polka dots, capes, mouse ears, knee socks, rainbow stripes, plaids, ruffle skirts, marching band vests, layers and layers of frills and one guy in a Tigger costume.
Lights strung across the ceiling instantly turned the space into a circus tent. From the carnival lights on the arcade games, to the spotlight used in Yum-Yum’s tongue-and-cheek Act II opening ballad “The Sun Whose Rays Are All Ablaze,” Heather Gilbert’s lighting accentuated the intimate circus atmosphere.
The cast is a true ensemble and a musically talented group. Their voices are uniformly strong and they play the entire score, orchestrated by Music Director Andra Velis Simon, on handheld instruments while singing, another element which adds to the show’s sense of intimacy. Each cast member plays two to three instruments throughout the show and they change instruments the way I change clothes, switching out a flute for a ukulele, a guitar for a violin without skipping a beat.
The comedic timing of the show was quick and sharp with zingers shooting across the circus tent in the same way balloons were being propelled back and forth. Song lyrics were sometimes hard to understand, as during the “On a Tree by a River,” where Ko-Ko’s farcical attempts to woo Katisha were drowned out by a saw played with a violin bow and the high-pitched noise really distracted from the singing.
Shawn Pfautsch was a delight in the double role of the minstrel Andy-Poo and Andy-Poo’s abandoned lover Katisha. Casting the same actor to play both roles was one of Graney’s adaptations and seeing Pfautsch emerge as a saxophone wielding matron in a beehive after becoming accustomed to his tweedle-dee-ish portrayal of Andy-Poo was perfectly over the top. “Where is Andy-Poo?” one of the characters asks. “He’s abroad.”
Pfautsch and Yum-Yum, played by Dana Omar, were both total hams and had great comedic timing. Their protestations of love in the number “Were You Not to Ko-Ko Plighted” were all unbridled fun and frivolity.
Mario Aivazian was great as Poo-Bah, the man with a thousand jobs whose character was originally intended as a lampoon of British bureaucracy and Ko-Ko, played by Matt Kahler, provided many laughs as the inept executioner and lover.
The cast was rounded out with excellent performances from Brian Keys (Pish-Tush, Lauren Vogel (Pitti-Sing), Amanda Raquel Martinez (Peep-Bo), Kate Carson-Groner (Barker), Tina Muñoz-Pandya (Mouse 1), and Eduardo Xavier Curley-Carillon (Mouse 2).
The Hypocrites’ production of The Mikado at the Olney Theatre is truly one of the most cohesive and immersive shows I have seen and a true example of a theatrical vision coming to life. My companion and I felt so integrated into the production that we both felt a bit abandoned when the actors left and the lights came up. We wanted more! We had mentally chucked real life out the window and become a part of this magical world of silliness and we didn’t want it to end.
Running Time: 80 minutes, including a one-minute (yes, one minute) intermission.