by W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan
directed by Wayne Vargas
at the Aggassiz Theater
April 14th 16th at 8 pm, and 15th at 2 pm
When fairies invade England's House of Lords, there's bound to be some disruption in the docket. The operetta, Iolanthe, brings nothing less than interracial marriage, capital punishment, and the class struggle into the stodgy chambers. Even more remarkably, it resolves these and other hefty issues in a mere two hours, all set a rapid-fire patter rhythm with a few love scenes tossed in to spice up the action. A little fairy magic sure does a lot for a body of government.
The Harvard and Radcliffe Gilbert and Sullivan Players' production of Iolanthe has a few of its own charms. The sunny scenery and Technicolor costumes, the small size of the cast, and the quaint Agassiz Theater create a user-friendly atmosphere. The direction of the operetta avoids visual excess and distraction, which can sometimes by a problem when gossamer fairy wings, pomp and circumstance are involved. Overall, the bright simplicity of the arrangements, bordering on a cheerful campiness, complements the more complex plot, focusing attention on the characters instead of on their surroundings.
However, the intimate environment also submits the performers to closer scrutiny. At such a close distance, dead time on stage is magnified and awkward and gestures meant to fill in the spaces appear contrived. While one character is singing a solo, the other singers to not seem to know what to do with themselves, or to how to fit in, albeit discreetly, with the rest of the scene.
For example, the chorus of fairies does not appear convincingly attentive to the Fairy Queen. Perhaps they are thinking about that handsome woodland sprite they just met the other day, or are preoccupied by an itch on one or their wings. When they do make faces of exaggerated wonder, these changes of expression lack fluency. As a result, the fairies, supposedly spontaneous and playful, instead appear a bit stiff and their gestures somewhat perfunctory.
But the fairies revive themselves nicely for the singing and dancing. The chorus of lords too, seem to be enjoying themselves more while striding around, despite their expressions of aristocratic displeasure. The chorus voices support each other and blend well, bringing out the harmonies and comic flourishes in Sullivan's score.
However, the soloists must project over the orchestra on their own as well as keeping key. Phyllis, the sheperdess played by Julia Chou, sings with confidence and precision. Timothy Griffiths in his tongue-twisting patter solos as the Lord Chancellor and Marcia Turner as Iolanthe pleading for her son's cause also give noteworthy performances. Yet some of the other characters seem less at ease. Jonathan Schwartz as Lord Tollolier cannot be understood very well over the orchestra. The voice of the Queen of the Fairies, portrayed by Emmy Brown, falters on the high notes and tends to drop off too quickly at the end of phrases. Her spoken lines are stronger and more convincing and reveal enticing bits of fairy, feminist wrath.
Unfortunately, such glimpses of sharp humor tease but do not deliver. Gilbert's libretto satirizes Victorian England, and his allusions were blunt and meaningful to contemporary audiences. A modern staging also needs some deeper dimension to do justice to the operetta. this Iolanthe shows possibilities but does not explore them; the campiness factor, the battle between sexes, or its interpretation as the first Jungle Fever could all be developed further. As it stands, Fairyland has as much bite as a flat scene on the back of a Crayola box, and the Lords react to its inhabitants the same why they might treat a few militant stenographers demanding a pay raise.