‘Mikado’ Struggles to Reckon with Racism, Technical Difficulties

When an “Oriental” Las Vegas hotel operates under the Mikado’s tyrannical reign, how far will its staff go to save their love lives—and actual lives? Moreover, how far will the Harvard-Radcliffe Gilbert & Sullivan Players go to address race and gender in this highly controversial rendition of “The Mikado?” Despite the whirlwind of outcry and op-eds, the play still goes on, running from Oct. 28 to Nov. 5. And despite the talented cast’s efforts, “The Mikado” still fails to confront its historically racist past, bringing to this revision an unexpected bit of transphobia and an array of technical mishaps.

This version of “The Mikado” transforms the town of “Titipu” into an “Oriental” Las Vegas hotel in the 20th century. It’s a comedic love story at heart, following the tale of Nanki-Poo (Benjamin D. Grimm ’18) as he attempts to win back his true love—Yum-Yum (Isabella Kopits ’20), who is currently engaged to Ko-Ko, the hotel’s High Executioner (Aaron A. Slipper ’18). Things don’t seem to be looking good for Nanki-Poo’s love life, until Ko-Ko strikes a deal with him. Forced by the Mikado (Deng-Tung Wang ’17), Ko-Ko must execute someone by the end of the month. So he asks Nanki-Poo to sacrifice himself—in exchange for a month of married happiness with Yum-Yum. The agreement goes well until it is derailed by an array of absurd events, including a visit by an ex-lover and the Mikado himself.

In an op-ed in The Crimson, the Gilbert & Sullivan Players’ president, Kathleen C. Zhou ’17, wrote that the group’s reimagination of “The Mikado” wishes “to confront, not to ignore” the play’s controversial past. However, this version of “The Mikado” does neither. For example, the scene is set at an “Oriental” hotel in 1960s Las Vegas, complete with a stereotypical Japanese cherry blossom painting in the background. The characters are introduced as Americans with pseudo-Japanese names. In a self-referential twist, the characters seem to recognize that these elements exist—but not the fact that they are controversial. They simply let things be as they are. Rather than confronting the play’s historical racism, this revision ran away from it.

The one moment that comes close to confrontation is during the song “Mi-ya sa-ma,” when the hotel staff members are handed sheet music and are forced to perform the song for the Mikado. They clearly look confused, which is a step toward meaningful confrontation. But it’s still not enough. This scene tries to subvert the play’s previous racism but merely recognizes that the song is strange, never alluding to its racially controversial nature.

“The Mikado” appears also surprisingly, if unintentionally, offensive towards transgender identity. Katisha is portrayed by a man (Zachary Mallory) in heels, a wig, and fake breasts. Drag isn’t necessarily offensive towards transgender people, but in this case, the only instance in which a man plays a woman is when this man plays a particularly ugly and villainous woman.

In a forthcoming Frequently Asked Question document, Zhou wrote that the character "is not that of a trans woman, but rather a female character played in drag."

"While it was not our intention to present a negative portrayal of a trans character, we understand that the confluence of the character traits of Katisha and the male actor embodying her raises questions about trans representation," Zhou wrote, indiciating that the show had originally cast a female actress, but that actress had do drop the show last-minute.

Still, this metatheatrical drag distinction is unclear. When Katisha is first introduced in the song “With aspect stern and gloomy stride,” the hotel staff members cower in fear. They are clearly horrified by Katisha’s appearance. At the end of the song, when they finally push Katisha away, the rest of the ensemble gathers at the center of the stage in triumph, with Nanki-Poo and Yum-Yum lit by the spotlight. It’s rather disturbing, and it reverses the progressive work the play has tried to accomplish.

Moreover, “The Mikado” fails in several technical aspects, most importantly in that it is very difficult to understand what the actors are saying. This isn’t necessarily an issue with the orchestra, as the two rarely compete for sound. The articulation of the words is just not clear during the songs. Additionally, the mirror behind the bar reflects a blinding light into the audience at times.

Another issue with “The Mikado” is the serious lack of worldbuilding. The action is set in 1960s Las Vegas—but why? The setting seems to have no purpose. Furthermore, the set seems confused about this particular aesthetic, combining elements that are either “retro” or “Oriental” but never both. The fact that the characters are recognized as American but have pseudo-Japanese is also strange. Perhaps the Mikado forced them into these roles in an attempt to keep his hotel’s theme? The answer is unclear, adding to the confusion.

Aside from these technical issues, “The Mikado” still has several redeeming qualities. Even though they can’t be understood, the actors clearly are all very strong singers, particularly Ida Paul ’20 and Wang. The acting is strong across the entire performance as well. It is clear that all actors fully understand their characters, especially Slipper, whose portrayal of Ko-Ko is near-perfect.He embodies a kind of hilarious poshness: “I have to get used to that first,” he says, cringing, after commanding Nanki-Poo to put his arm around Yum-Yum. He shudders, then asks Yum-Yum to rest her head on Nanki-Poo’s shoulder. After recoiling in disgust, he says with great reluctance, “Now kiss her.” The whole scene is entirely hilarious, mostly due to Slipper’s stellar performance. His character transforms from annoying to lovable under his direction. And the chemistry between Yum-Yum and Nanki-Poo is undeniable. When they try to flirt with each other in “Were you not to Ko-Ko plighted,” they do so with a sweet, innocent intimacy, rarely breaking eye contact. It’s moments like these that make “The Mikado” mostly entertaining despite its troubles.

“The Mikado” clearly has a talented cast—but, unfortunately, with its avoidance of confrontation, this retelling of “The Mikado” is not the subversive play its staff may want it to be yet. However, if the dedication from the Players and the revision of “Mi-ya sa-ma” is of any indication, a truly successful version of “The Mikado” may very well be on its way.

—Staff writer Grace Z. Li can be reached at grace.li@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @gracezhali.

Tags

Recommended Articles