LOVE IS a plaintive song, and its object in Patience is the aesthete. A band of smitten maidens troops around the stage, fluttering their arms, striking desolate poses and sighing for one Reginald Bunthorne: poet and poseurpar excellence. Bunthorne's dedication, you see, is not so much to his art as to himself. His aestheticism, which issues in a poetry devoted to colocynth and calomel, is mere affectation, a ploy designed to elicit the admiration of his gullible Victorian public.
The ploy works, but this production ofPatienceis less successful. Not devoid by any means of energy and talent, Patience is still spotty by Gilbert & Sullivan Society standards, suffering from uneven acting and the familiarity of director P.D. Seltzer's gimmickry.
To be fair, this spoof on late Victorian aestheticism and its pretentiously empyrean devotees is not sterling Gilbert & Sullivan. Patiencedoes have its share of Gilbertian humor, mostly deriving from the parody of aesthetic attitudinizing, and its plot is powered by the usual sort of Gilbertian paradox--in this case, an identification of love with duty which brands the love of anything worth loving as undutiful. But it lacks the consistently memorable score that distinguishes Pirates of Penzance, for example, or the brilliant comic sequences which make Iolanthea favorite.
This particular production experienced severe difficulties getting off the ground. Seltzer, who did such a splendid job with Piratesthis fall, took over directorial chores forPatiencefairly late, replacing another director. In the time remaining, he was unable to put together a production as tightly knit or as inventive as G&S aficionados have come to expect.
The biggest disappointment is Reginald (Paul Jackel). In many ways, this role is the juiciest in the operetta; as a fleshly man who merely feigns ethereality, Reginald is the butt of most of Gilbert's jokes, and as the frustrated lover of the simple maiden Patience, he gets to sing many of his funniest lyrics. Jackel is far from incompetent: he has a loud, if not operatic, voice, ample stage presence and a talent for looking discomfited.
But the part requires extraordinary control, an ability to comically etch the distinctions between the rogue as rogue and the rogue as aesthete through consistent variations of voice and gait. Jackel too often mixes the two; under Seltzer's direction, he relies overmuch on standard poses to suggest his aestheticism, his favorite involving arms exhibitionistically extended to each side and face open in a self-satisfied grin. In failing to differentiate sharply enough between the man who plays a part and the part that the man plays, Jackel not only forfeits many of the humorous possibilities of the role but mutes the whole production.
Reginald's antics appear strained largely in contrast to the effortlessness which seems to mark Seltzer's characterization of Reginald's rival in love, the more spiritual Archibald. When he glides on stage to declare his affections for Patience, his infanthood sweetheart, Seltzer makes us keenly aware of what most of the other actors have been doing wrong. With a remarkable economy of movement and gesture, he skillfully conveys the fundamental absurdity of Archibald's unhappy narcissism, evoking laughs simply by a raised eyebrow or changed inflection.
Sharing the limelight with Seltzer is Nancy Gustafson as Patience, the pure-hearted, affectation-hating country girl. Clad in a yellow and white dirndle, Gustafson acts the part with a winsome wholesomeness and devotion to duty. Her scenes with Archibald, particularly when she alternately begs him to "think of me sometimes" and warns him to "think of me sometimes" and warns him to "advance at your peril," are especially fine. But Gustafson's talents are most in evidence when she launches into song. Her strong, pure soprano elevates Patience's plight to operatic heights, her superb diction rarely obscuring Gilbert's lyrics.
AFTER SELTZER and Gustafson, encomiums are harder to parcel out. Linda Greenbaum, as the Lady Ella, has an unusually winning voice, and Stephen Montgomery as the extremely eligible Duke of Dunstable sings in a rich, clear tenor. As Major Murgatroyd, David Brown stumbles out of step, mugs and affects a Cockney accent with comic virtuosity. On the other hand, Jeanette Worthen's characterization of the irksome Lady Jane, who clings to Reginald when the rest of his admirers have deserted him for Archibald, is blunted by an annoying hamminess.
The conceptual thread tying this production of Patiencetogether is the generalization of Gilbert's parody to include contemporary pretensions and mannerisms. This interpretation is never intrusive, emerging mostly in dance sequences mocking 20th century dance conventions, in occasional hippie poses, in references to the Boston Pops and Chase Manhattan Bank.
The production benefits from careful blocking and occasionally inspired choreography. One problem, however, is that too many of Seltzer's directorial gimmicks seem stale; the use and abuse of cards with lyrics written on them, the single clutzy dragoon marring the dragoon chorus line, the succession of encores marked by the increasing exhaustion and hostility of the participating characters--all these have grown familiar enough by now to G&S patrons.
TECHNICALLY, the most impressive aspect of Patienceis Linda Beyer's magnificent costumes. The contrast, for example, between the trailingly ethereal black and white gowns worn by the poetically enamoured female chorus and the multicolored Victorian dress they don near the end underscores the drama of their conversion from transcendental to commonplace. Roger Bardwell's set, a simulation of red brick, grey classical columns and yellow and green hedges is functional rather than aesthetically pleasing. Under the direction of David Crowe, the orchestra does an able job of executing Sullivan's difficult music.
Patienceis not a bad show. What is missing is simply the excitement, the sense of surprise, which pushes a production past competence to memorability. Still, only a constant straining after what is not there-the laughs that never materialize, the comic peaks which remain plateaus--obscures the very real virtues of what remains; and it was, after all, partly to mock this idealist yearning for the unattainable, as well as its various exponents, that Gilbert and Sullivan wrote Patiencein the first place.
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