Review: ‘The Mikado’ by Young Victorian Theatre Company

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Editor’s note: Did I make the right decision in pulling this review last night? I don’t know. I really don’t know. And I know that whatever actions I take going forward are going to anger someone. But, for better or worse, this event has become a catalyst for a much-needed conversation about race and representation. It’s a conversation that is happening all over America and a conversation in which the theater community should take a leadership role. After waking up to a firestorm of opinions – some praising and some lambasting the decision to pull the review – I spent the day feeling like the world’s worst editor. And maybe I am. So be it.

But since we are talking, let’s keep this conversation going. I agree that a conversation with this much passion behind it can only happen transparently if everyone can see the review that started the debate. For that reason, and in the hopes that people of all backgrounds and points of view will gather here for civil dialogue, I am putting the review back up beneath this preface.

When I realized last night that our review had angered members of the Asian Pacific American community (and others), I decided to stand by the people who felt wronged by it, to make a statement that said “I hear you. Your perspective matters.” And I still feel that way. But I also hope this can be a learning moment for all of us.

I ask everyone to consider this when reading the review: Your reaction to it, and whether or not you find it offensive, is influenced by everything that has brought you to this point in your life. Your race, your upbringing, the degree to which you have been allowed to belong or been pushed to the sidelines, all of that informs how you will interpret this review and how you interpret a show like The Mikado.

So let’s talk. And let’s listen.


By Bill Kamberger

Full disclosure: I love The Mikado. I sang in the chorus of the Young Victorian Theatre Company’s 1979 production, a publicity photo from which is being used to advertise their current mounting of this 1885 operetta, which is probably Gilbert and Sullivan’s most masterful and enduringly popular work. And as the Norton Library edition of Gilbert’s libretti notes, that also makes this show the finest achievement in English-language theater in the century between Sheridan and Wilde.

The Cast of The Mikado. Photo courtesy of the Young Victorian Theatre Company.

Nevertheless, controversy has dogged The Mikado from the beginning. Fearing a comic portrayal of Japan would offend a visiting Japanese prince, the British government banned all London presentations of the work, forcing the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company to transfer its original production to Sheffield.

A Tokyo journalist, K. Sugimura, scoped out a performance, reporting, “I came to Sheffield expecting to discover real insults to my countrymen. I find bright music and much fun, but I could not find the insults…The English people, in withdrawing this play lest Japan should be offended, are crediting my country with needless readiness to take offense.”

A lot has changed since 1885, much of it undoubtedly for the better. Concepts like “cultural appropriation” have entered the public consciousness, and The Mikado, being still one of the best-known examples of a Western comedy set in Japan, has borne the brunt of the criticism.

Just last week, Baltimore’s own The Bad Oracle dismissed this operetta as a “dated piece of trash that has no place on the stage.” More thoughtfully but no less indignantly, comedian and activist Sean Miura has asserted, “Lampooning white aristocracy by using Japan as a vessel does not justify the constant belittlement of my ancestors.”

Mr. Miura touches on a point that The Mikado’s defenders feel is central to their case: the operetta is not really about Japan at all, but about Victorian Britain and its political, social, and sexual foibles. Indeed, the logo for the Young Vic’s production shows Gilbert and Sullivan standing beside a traditional Japanese torii that claims to lead to “the Town of Titipu,” the operetta’s ostensible setting, but which actually opens onto Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament – arguably the wittiest sight gag in this show, as well as a guide on how to approach this work that more companies would do well to heed.

But is The Mikado, however inadvertently, still guilty of belittling people like Mr. Miura’s ancestors? It’s hard to argue otherwise, but that’s not the whole story: like any true satirist, Gilbert belittled everybody. He was, if anything, more a misanthrope than a racist – this show’s famous “Little List” song, which catalogs all the people deserving of a death sentence, concludes that none of us would be missed – yet even that is belied by some of his real-life actions.

This was the same man, after all, who died of a heart attack when, at 74, he dove into a lake to save a young woman who claimed to be drowning. In an irony that Gilbert probably would have found droll, the girl, Patricia Preece, not only survived but grew up to ruin the life of another British artistic genius, painter Stanley Spencer.

Despite all arguments to the contrary, it’s clear from the delighted reaction of the audience at the Young Vic that The Mikado isn’t going away any time soon. Pressure from critics like Mr. Miura has caused many theaters, including this one, to reconsider some of the more offensive elements in their interpretations of the show, and there is undeniably more work to be done in that regard. Calling for the operetta to be removed from the repertoire, however, is unlikely to advance that cause. Even people who don’t much care for a particular work are often spurred to dive to its rescue when censorship is floated.

And if I may interject another personal note, even before I was hired by DCMTA, my 83-year-old mother told me this show was the one she most wanted to attend this year. It’s a request I was determined to fulfill, for even if the naysayers don’t get their way, who knows how many more opportunities she will have to see it staged?

My mother happens to be a Pearl Harbor survivor, and so might be expected to hold a grudge against the Japanese, but neither malice nor political correctness appears to be on her radar. “I like the music” is her only response to such questions, and while some would say that’s privilege speaking, it also strikes me as wisdom. Among the many tragedies of racism, a tiny but not-insignificant one is that its victims have never been allowed, by either society or their own consciences, simply to enjoy the music.

Fortunately, the Young Vic can always be counted on to provide an excellent rendition of a Sullivan score, with the orchestra under the baton of Christopher M. Cicconi once again meriting the highest praise. What’s more, under the stage direction of Baltimore treasure James Harp, this Mikado honors both sides of Gilbert’s personality.

Even during his lifetime, the librettist had encouraged subsequent interpreters of his works to update his topical gibes to fit the crimes of the moment, and Harp complies by skewering everyone from Tide Pod-chewers to the current Commander-in-Chief – though not, thankfully, anti-Mikado protesters.

The cast of The Mikado. Photo by John La Costa.

Yet for all its vitriol, not to mention some inserted ribaldry that would definitely not have amused Queen Victoria, this Mikado is essentially a tender-hearted affair that finds greater humanity in its characters than is usual, though certainly not more than is welcome.

Most spectacularly, mezzo Jenni Bank is a revelation as Katisha, a role too often played as a humorless harridan. Bank is sufficiently scary when required, but she’s also very funny, frequently in admirably subtle and unexpected ways; unfailingly dignified, even when placed in the most demeaning situations; and astonishingly sexy, thereby cluing us that the other characters’ revulsion at the sight of her may be merely sexist projection.

Better yet, Bank brings genuine pathos to the moments when Katisha reveals the loneliness that lurks behind her forbidding façade. It’s surely no coincidence that one of those moments, “The Hour of Gladness” in the Act I finale, inspires lighting designer Daniel Weissglass to create a mauve wash that is this production’s loveliest effect as if to make Katisha’s inner beauty visible.

Matching her every step of the way is Young Vic veteran Joshua Hughes as Ko-Ko, the feckless Lord High Executioner, a character who has been a comic gold mine for clowns from Groucho Marx to Eric Idle. Hughes proves comparably adept at mining the part for laughs, even as he manages to invest it with far more depth.

I chuckled every time he struggled to wield his oversized headsman’s ax, even though it was obviously only a light-weight facsimile, since his acting is credible enough to convince the prop itself of its heaviness. And he is no less persuasive at melting hearts in the beloved “Tit-Willow” song, not least because, unlike most actors who essay this role, Hughes is a bona fide operatic baritone.

Soprano Alissa Roca is downright delicious as Yum-Yum, imbuing the character’s cold-blooded vanity with a disarming warmth, but I was less taken with tenor John Kaneklides as her hapless lover, Nanki-Poo. Though his Chris Evans-like looks are fit to set hearts aflutter, his line readings tend to be ham-fisted, and his singing voice on opening weekend was already starting to fray.

Moreover, I’m not sure it’s appropriate to have Christopher Fotis, as Pish-Tush, brazenly flirt with him at every opportunity. Not only is flirting supposedly a capital offense in the world of this show, but sexual relations between men in Victoria’s England often had consequences that were not at all amusing, as Oscar Wilde would learn just ten years after The Mikado’s premiere.

Speaking of Pish-Tush, Gilbert gave him the following lyrics that may be the best response possible to this show’s persistent controversy: “And you’ll allow, as I expect, / That he was right to so object. / And I am right, and you are right, / And everything is quite correct!”

I can’t say everything is entirely correct at the Young Vic, but missing this production would unquestionably be wrong.

Running Time: Three hours, with one intermission

The Mikado plays through July 22, 2018, at the Young Victorian Theatre Company performing at Roland Park Country School – 5204 Roland Avenue, in Baltimore, MD. For tickets, buy them at the door, or purchase them online.

19 COMMENTS

  1. As recently as three minutes ago I would have – perhaps naively or ignorantly – defended The Mikado. But this review has so confidently misunderstood the criticisms of The Mikado that it’s managed to Dunning-Kruger it’s way through a defense that actually changes my mind *the opposite way intended.*

    “The Mikado isn’t racist because my grandmother who has every reason to hate Japanese likes it. Now let us discuss the predominantly white cast in yellow face…” is such a shockingly ignorant point of view that I’m not surprised that “the show is updated with references to Tide-Pods and it’s only flaw is that it doesn’t perfect preserve the grotesque and dehumanizing sexual mores of the Victorian era” is considered a coherent – much less defensible – thought.

    It fails to vault the lowest bars of theater criticism imaginable – simple coherence.

  2. “Among the many tragedies of racism, a tiny but not-insignificant one is that its victims have never been allowed, by either society or their own consciences, simply to enjoy the music.”

    Do you mean to tell me that the reason why I – as an Asian American individual – am incapable enjoying music that I legitimately find to be offensive, albeit racist in the 21st century, is merely because the society which surrounds me (as a “victim of racism”) has dictated to me that I should feel offended? Are you implying that I have somehow lost my ability to think freely as a “victim of racism” because my conscience weighs too heavily with too much a moral compass? You might as well have told me to “lighten up and get over it”.

    This company and reviewers like you who empower them are the exact reason why members of our community are outraged. It is absolutely infuriating to constantly have our concerns, frustrations, offenses swept under the rug and quelled by those who insist that we are overreacting.

  3. I want to say I’m grateful for the decision to repost this review and I respect the editor so much for her statement at the top.

    I look forward to engaging in and learning from the dialogue that develops around this. My question to people who find this show so offensive that they feel it shouldn’t be performed is other than the incredibly outdated stereotyped portrayal of “Japanese culture” what about the show is problematic to you? I agree the way Japanese culture is portrayed is very problematic by modern day standards. What I struggle to understand is how the music or actual thematic material of the show us offensive. The music really had no reference whatsoever to Japanese culture and doesn’t engage in cultural appropriation in a musical sense and thematically the show is a satire of Britain and quite explicitly so.

    I fully expect to just be yelled at because it is the internet, but if anybody cares to respond in a calm and well reasoned manner I would love to have that discussion.

    • No amount of musical or thematic merit will outweigh the horrific yellowface practices that The Mikado promotes in the way it’s currently being presented. It is irresponsible and frankly lazy of companies/critics/G&S fans to insist that this show must only be performed in the “traditional” way (i.e. white actors playing Asian characters) if the intent of producing it truly is to showcase the brilliant wit and music of Gilbert & Sullivan.

      This article details the efforts of a San Francisco company who worked with the local Asian American community to recontextualize The Mikado and set it in Renaissance Italy, retaining all of the music and most of the text (with some small adjustments) while removing the harmful Orientalist indicators. The article says, “With their new version of The Mikado, Lamplighters has joined the ranks of companies such as Mu Performing Arts, Chicago’s the Hypocrites, and the VORTEX in Austin in reintrepreting the controversial musical for a more diverse contemporary audience. The Hypocrites’ version, for instance, was set at a modern carnival and removed all references to Japan, while the VORTEX’s Mikado: Reclaimed took a metatheatrical approach in which an all-Asian cast performing the operetta while imprisoned in an internment camp. It shows that G&S is as resilient as Shakespeare or any classic opera; setting it in a new place only enhances the piece’s universality.”

      If the merits of The Mikado truly are the music and the satire, as many G&S lovers claim, I don’t see why this type of recontextualized production couldn’t be an acceptable and culturally responsible way to preserve those merits going forward. The show can still exist without contributing to the oppression of an entire culture and community, and I think that’s as satisfactory of a compromise as we could hope for.

    • “…other than the incredibly outdated stereotyped portrayal of “Japanese culture” what about the show is problematic to you?”

      The incredibly outdated, stereotyped portrayal of Japanese culture. That part. Yep, that’s enough.

  4. Kudos for reposting this and allowing the conversation to happen. This is an editorial policy your readers can believe in.

  5. Hmm. You can’t really “see both sides” of racism and misogyny. That’s akin to Trump saying that he could see both sides of the Charlottesville travesty.

    • To be clear, when I say “both sides” I mean both sides of the argument as to whether or not the review should have been taken down, not both sides of the argument as to whether or not The Mikado is racist. My initial reaction was to stand by the people who were hurt by this review and that is why I took it down. I do, however, recognize that in choosing to remove it, I censored the ability of other readers to see it and contribute to this discussion. That is what I meant by both sides.

      As to whether or not we should have published it in the first place, I agree with Hannah’s assessment that it really is more of a personal op-ed piece than a review and it is on me for allowing it to have been published like that.

      • I sincerely appreciate the effort you have made to be candid and take responsibility for DCMTA regarding this piece. As a member of the APA and theater communities, I honestly didn’t think that anything would be done when I complained and that my words would just float into the ether never to be read again. I was sincerely surprised when you took the action that you did and even more surprised when you took the time to read others’ comments in the published apology and re-posted this with a note. That couldn’t have been easy especially considering how angry a majority of those comments must have been, including my own.

        I really think that this was a very powerful step forward and sets such a positive example of how individuals in the position of power should address and communicate with members of marginalized communities. Thank you.

  6. Nicole: finding room for conversation about this is great. And I hope reading this and the thread of comments will ensure that reviews like this aren’t shared again. As Karen said, you can’t “see both sides” of racism. If someone is insulted, hurt and angry they shouldn’t be dismissed – they should be listened to.

    I’m less interested in the debate about if The Mikado should “go away” and more about if it is produced how can it be contextualized (in the production by casting, design, language shifts, concept) or in the material surrounding the production (dramaturgical materials, letter to the audience, conversations about the play). There are two challenges I see here (1) the review itself which is insensitive, defensive and includes a personal agenda – which in my mind makes it not a review but an op-ed style piece and (2) if DCMTHA should review productions like The Mikado – which I think it should as long as it’s able to contextualize in a way that doesn’t diminish the complaints and anger but listens and reflects – AND provides focus on the production itself and not the history. Did this production fall into the easy pits in this play of racism, did it attempt to spark conversation, does it use yellow-face, these are the types of questions I’d like to see addressed.

    • I totally agree with this. I would be interested in seeing a thoughtful production of this piece that made an effort to somehow comment on current race dynamics and Asian/Asian-American culture, and I know that it has been done by other American theater companies as Sarah Anne Sillers mentioned above.

      I honestly think that if publications like DCMTA wants to review pieces like The Mikado, it would be wise to have a member of the marginalized community in question – one who is willing to actually pose hard questions, dig deep and challenge the production and its audience – write that review.

  7. Hi Jason,

    I think that is a valid question and I personally appreciate it being posted. The one argument I keep hearing from Gilbert and Sullivan supporters is that The Mikado is meant to be a satire of the British Empire, not a mockery of Japanese culture. Trust me when I say we fully understand that this is a satire. Many of us, especially APA artists, are very knowledgeable of the history of The Mikado, of Gilbert and Sullivan and also of the role that Orientalism has played for centuries in Western art. We understand all of that. But I wonder if others are looking at the FULL history of The Mikado, beyond Gilbert and Sullivan.

    Orientalism had a very real and very negative influence on Western Culture’s perception of Asians and those from the “East” (which includes Middle Eastern, North African and South Asian cultures). It’s effects are felt even today and it is a big reason why we are even having this discussion. Orientalism, while seemingly harmless to Western society, was very damaging to Asian communities and persons living within the Western world. The ideals associated with it contributed to many racist acts throughout the Americas toward those of Asian descent. It influences even modern-day stereotypes of Asians, including the infamous “Model Minority” and probably in ways that most people don’t even care to realize, even those within our community.

    For me personally, it’s less that I do not wish to see The Mikado produced. But too often than not, it is done without enough thought or conversation on how a contemporary Asian American audience could be affected by it and why. I have no control over who chooses to produce what pieces at any given moment and it would be foolish of me to expect that all theater companies cease to produce this operetta ever again. My anger stems from the very insensitive and often ignorant comments given by artistic directors, manager and producers when defending their work as well as from those who insist on defending it. This review, as well as Brian Goodman’s interview with The Sun, are perfect examples of such comments being made.

    When a community, even a portion of it, expresses that they find a piece offensive, it’s not really up to those within the privileged majority to begin dictating to us how we should express our feelings of frustration or rage. When reviewers, such as Bill Kamberger write comments in their reviews saying, “Among the many tragedies of racism, a tiny but not-insignificant one is that its victims have never been allowed, by either society or their own consciences, simply to enjoy the music” a lot of us see this as a passive aggressive attempt to tell us to “Just lighten up already” – because that’s exactly what it is. We have a right to be angry and to tell you that. Do you like hearing it? No, but frankly there has never been a right way for us to express to your community our thoughts, frustration and anger. We’ve BEEN civil – we are (unfortunately) the “Model Minority” and have made it a part of our reputation to keep quiet, assimilate as best we can and be accommodating to others even in communicating that we find their actions to be reprehensible to our communities. We have clearly not made any progress. And now, this is where we are.

    What angers us the most is that we are trying (and have been trying) to communicate that WE are the ones who are directly affected by pieces like this and have a right to feel offended. Orientalism as it is depicted in pieces like The Mikado, however harmless it may seem to many outside of our community, still has a horribly negative effect on the Asian-American and Pacific American communities as a whole. We still feel that damage, even today in 2018 and it is evident in the fact that we can barely have a discussion with members outside of our community regarding anything that offends us, including The Mikado. It took me writing a pissed off article on my personal blog to actually get people’s attention long enough to listen to us – including you. And it shouldn’t come to that.

    Now, a question for you, Jason. We’ve been debating for quite some time now, both on Facebook and here on the DCMTA pages. I can tell that you’re angry with me and I sincerely want to know why. You’ve mentioned that you disliked my rebuttal to The Sun interview but your criticism seemed a bit scattered. Were you angry that others were sharing my article on social media? If so, then why? That’s what social media is there for. Were you angry that I included sarcastic gifs and an image of me flipping of the camera? It is my personal blog after all and I built it to express my feelings freely and also to allow other Asian and Asian American artists a way to talk about their work and others’ works that impacted them. Have you worked with The Young Victorian? Are you close with artists involved in the show? Were you defending their integrity out of personal reasons? Also, you’ve been arguing a lot against censorship, which I agree is a very destructive act. However, I’m confused how one can argue so vehemently against the censorship of a dated piece that a minority community finds offensive and then turn around and criticize its members for speaking up, even insulting some of us. You’ve called me arrogant on several occasions despite the fact that many people (strangers as well as acquaintances and friends within the APA and theater commuities) shared my blog and echoed their sentiments regarding the piece.

    You seem like you could be a reasonable person, but as you said – people tend to come across as uncivil on the internet. So what are you actually offended by in regards to my actions and why?

    [I also want to mention that the Asian and Asian American communities tend to be incredibly divided in their opinions regarding racism in art, misrepresentation and cultural appropriation. I am happy to discuss that too, but didn’t want to take up more space.]

  8. I am curious why a threatre would even mount “The Mikado” in 2018. Many works that were once considered great have now been reassessed as we’ve stumbled toward equality and representation. Why not leave them be? Is there anything to be gained by producing what is basically light fluff that’s now rightly viewed as racist?

  9. John and Nicole, Thank you for restoring the review. Disagreement is fundamental to democracy and the survival of a free press. If a review is questionable–either distorted or unfair–then the simplest solution is to publish an opposing point of view. Censoring a review is like killing the messenger. If a play is dated, or should be recast by a producer with more modern sensibilities, a second reviewer can make that argument.

  10. If the picture chosen for the review didn’t immediately give you pause, then the erstwhile review (but actually impassioned defense) of the Mikado should definitely give you pause. I am constantly angered by the view that blackface is abhorent, but yellowface is tolerable. The reviewer’s statement that “the operetta is not really about Japan at all” begs the question, then why the yellowface and Japanese costumes? The horrible names used in the show is making fun of asian sounding names to get laughs. The reviewer cites that the Tokyo journalist, K. Sugimura said he could not find the insults in the early 1900’s but in 2018 the insults are glaring obvious to this DC Asian American Actor just by looking at the picture of the cast. The general tenor of this erstwhile review is “Yeah it’s racist, but Gilbert and Sullivan!” It makes me feel furious in the same way that I felt when I saw the Telemundo hosts making slant eyes after watching Korea beat Germany at the World Cup. “Yeah, it’s racist but it was meant as a compliment.” As to the reviewer’s mother connection and statement that “while some would say that’s privilege speaking, it also strikes me as wisdom.” I don’t even know how to begin to address the statement. Indeed, why in the world would you or your mother be offended because it’s not your race that’s being made fun of (Pearl Habor forgiveness notwithstanding). I would invite the reviewer, the reviewer’s mother and the editor to view this video to understand a little bit about how this yellowface show makes me feel.
    http://digg.com/video/yellowface-hollywood

    • I wrote the following under the published apology [before the review was reposted] as a response to the reviewer’s mention of his grandmother as a way to defend this piece:

      I also found the comments regarding his grandmother to be, again, quite passive aggressive. My grandparents survived World War II as well. In fact, I have family that was tortured and murdered by the Japanese during their invasion of the Philippines – including a great uncle who was beheaded, another who watched a man get skinned alive at the age of seven and a great great grandfather who was tied to a tree, tortured for days and eventually murdered. And yet I, as a Filipino Asian-American, am still able to separate my family history and animosity toward the Japanese and the terrible things that happened to us in their hands and call out cultural appropriation in the 21st century as it happens. I am able to do this because I know that the two histories – what happened in World War II and the content of The Mikado – are two very separate things and it is absolutely inappropriate to negate arguments against one by using the other.

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