Musical Fairy Dramas Amuse in ‘Iolanthe’

Emily K. Vasiliauskas

The Fairy Queen (Johanna S. Karlin ’05) with Iolanthe (Celia R. Maccoby ’07), Strephon (Michael Moss ’03) and the fairy princesses wander in fairyland.

Iolanthe, like most Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, is a cheerfully silly piece about love with a healthy dash of British political satire. In this case, the law is the target, but it is powerless before love. The fairy Iolanthe (Celia R. Maccoby ’07), pardoned after a twenty-five-year banishment from fairyland for the crime of marrying a mortal, has a half-fairy (the upper half) son, named Strephon (Michael Moss ’03). Strephon is in love with Phyllis (Lisa D. Lareau ’06), who, as an orphan, has been entrusted to the court of chancery and is dependent on the permission of the Lord Chancellor to get married; unfortunately, the entire house of Lords, including the Lord Chancellor himself (Daniel A. Spitzer ’05), are in love with her. The Harvard Radcliffe Gilbert Sullivan Players’ successful performance highlighted the silliness of the piece without losing track of the fact that most of the characters take their own plights seriously.

It is hard to know what to make of the costumes, designed by Jane H. Van Cleef ’06. While the play is set in modern dress, and the Lords wear inoffensive suits, the fairies wear a ridiculous array of rags that seem to have been bought for a dollar a pound at a consignment shop and then dragged through the mud several times. The result is suitably strange, but also a little baffling; why would the aristocratic and starchy Lords marry women who look like mentally disturbed paupers? It’s even stranger when you consider that Iolanthe and the Fairy Queen (Johanna S. Karlin ’05) are dressed according to more conventional notions of fairy attire—blue robes for Iolanthe and an impossibly billowing gown for the Queen.

The set, designed by Melissa E. Goldman, is quite incomprehensible as well: a number of green poles topped with hexagonal lights cover the stage. It is unclear what these are supposed to represent (trees? stars? streetlights? fairy stop signs?); their chief function seems to be to clutter the stage. The branchlike or possibly rootlike structure at the rear right of the stage, as well as the green chicken-wire arranged around the exits, are equally puzzling. They do contribute a sense of the outdoors and pastoral life that would be associated with the shepherd Strephon, but since they are constantly on stage, including during the scenes that take place within the House of Lords, the effect is rather dispersed.

Fortunately, the acting and singing pull the production through. Though a few cast members could work on their projection, and the lyrics become muddied when the male and female choruses sing simultaneously, the words are surprisingly comprehensible for a fast-paced Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. The acting is excellent. Karlin, as the Fairy Queen, alternates between Queen-of-Hearts-like condemning her subjects to “DEATH!” for courting mortals and shamelessly swooning over the mortal Private Willis (Marcus L. Wang ’04), who was passably but inexplicably portrayed as an American. Spitzer, as the Lord Chancellor, wears a constantly pained look at his moral dilemma and is also one of the more convincingly old men I have seen portrayed by college students. The selfless Iolanthe, played sweetly by Maccoby, displays completely genuine goodwill toward the world. Moss and Lareau, playing the two young lovers, are cheerfully blithe and unconcerned at everything, including their own love (“If we’re weak enough to tarry / Ere we marry / You and I / Of the feeling I inspire / You may tire/ By and by,” sings Strephon, as an explanation for why he has braved death to marry Phyllis).

The choreography, by Amanda M. Gann ’06, is another standout feature of this production. Some of the moves are dubious (Private Willis attempts to dance the Macarena to his solo), but most are strong, like the comically half-hearted and self-conscious dance leaps by the Lord Chancellor and Strephon, the Lord Chancellor’s fluidly shifting nightmare scenarios, or the tensely balanced face-off between the Lords and the fairies in the House of Parliament.

—Crimson arts reviewer Alexandra D. Hoffer can be reached at hoffer@fas.harvard.edu.