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The Æthiop, which ran this weekend in the Agassiz Theatre, dates from 1812 and ranked as one of the most successful operettas in America until the Civil War. Given its period, it was no surprise to find that it’s horribly dated—the type of show where men ponder “the benefits and liabilities of having a strong-willed wife” in song. As such, it was difficult to know if we, the modern audience, were laughing with the production or at it—did those 19th-century viewers guffaw as we did at lines like “Even in bondage, we’ll live cheerfully”? All I know is that The Æthiop could not have been produced anywhere but Harvard—this operetta is one part history, one part veiled Iraq protest, one part nerdy fun.
The intrepid Harvard Early Music Society had to go digging in the bowels of Widener before they could produce the play. Somehow, while searching Hollis, Musical and Orchestral Restorer Victor Fell Yellin ’49 discovered that one keyboard score of the show had survived there all this time. He went on to restore the operetta for this production, and did a winning job. Moreover, the work was remarkably well executed by Music Director Marisa W. Green ’04, who rose above the well-known difficulties of working with a hastily assembled orchestra.
As is typical of this brand of melodrama, The Æthiop’s plot is more convoluted than complex. The play is set in timeless Baghdad, complete with such characters as a vizier named Giafar, Cephania, Queen of the East, a cadi, an emir, a slave, and an Arab. But except for the exotic names and a few camel references, this is a play of troubled lovers, conspiracy and happy endings that could have been set anywhere.
In fact, director Patrick W. Hosfield ’05 assured us that the production contained “no straining comparisons to present day events,” but more than one viewer probably came out of the production thinking about how much better the world might be if somewhere in the Iraqi desert, there were a solitary “Æthiop” wisely finding ways to iron out all the silly wrinkles of the factions.
The Æthiop, by the way, is a mysterious character who guides a faction set against the Caliph Ali into the palace in secrecy. One wishes that Steve Schaefer ’05 had played the Æthiop with more exaggeration—that he had been more hunchbacked, more creepy, more disturbing. Given The Æthiop’s ridiculous story line and risible characters, the play can only be pulled off if there’s some great character acting. If the actors don’t ham it up, it can—and, in this production, did—get a little boring.
Far and away the best showmanship of the night came from Kate D. Greenhalgh ’05, who played the shrewish wife Grumnigra just as shrilly as the name would imply. Her performance, highly reminiscent of the squeaky-voiced Lena Lamont character in Singin’ in the Rain, often stole the show. In a way, though, her dominance was a shame; if other actors had dug into their characters as much as Greenhalgh did, they could easily have taken back some of Greenhalgh’s well-earned applause.
Thankfully, as the two lovers who grounded most of the play, Frank C. Napolitano ’05 and the stunning Caitlin C. Vincent ’07, were solid performers and great singers. Their scenes were always enjoyable to watch, and they perfected a sort of mock-stage chemistry which fit perfectly with the evening’s style.
The Æthiop included what Green explained in the program as “curtain raisers” which “were always included to round out a complete and diverse evening’s programme.” Well, Harlequin at the Ballet did indeed diversify the program, but these “curtain raisers” could have seemed a little random to the uninformed. In other words, this was a production where the program mattered.
Perhaps the production’s most outstanding element was its costume design, which, though simple, was effective and quite eye-catching. Bright robes with strips of bold gold embroidery worked marvelously for the set, and the emirs and cadis looked so great in their paisley-printed caftans that I was inclined to wonder whether these garments wouldn’t have made a nice addition to my personal wardrobe once the run was over. Kudos to costumers Andrea R. Bomar ’05 and Susan K. Davidson ’02.
The set was simple, but somewhat less effective than the costumes. The only other Harvard Early Music Society production that I have seen was Orontea in 2001. My memory may be too kind, but I feel that Orontea’s staging location—the Fogg Art Museum—gave that show a dreamy appeal that would have greatly benefited The Æthiop. One cannot help but think that this production’s rough edges might have been less apparent in a more grandiose setting.
As it was, The Æthiop’s amateurish elements often outweighed its more professional components, but there were enough good bits here to make for an enjoyable evening. If nothing else, the production’s efforts at historical authenticity paid off, and it was fun to slip back for a night and enjoy the frivolous pursuits of bygone times.
—Crimson Arts critic Eugenia B. Schraa can be reached at email@example.com.
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