Martian ‘Princess Ida’ Rockets to Success

“Ida” combines sci-fi aesthetics with Victorian sensibilities.

College us just a place to escape your prospective husband, at least in the world of W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan 1884 operetta “Princess Ida, or Castle Adamant.” The Victorian piece ridicules the importance of women’s education, so the Agassiz Theatre in Radcliffe Yard was a perfectly ironic choice of venue. The Harvard-Radcliffe Gilbert and Sullivan Players’ production of “Princess Ida”—which ran from March 22 to April 1 and was directed by Eli E. Kahn ’13 and Michael R. Taylor ’14—played up the humor in the rather politically incorrect plot. The show took a look at the libretto’s uncomfortable theme by emphasizing the incongruity—through commendable acting and set design—between the characters’ outdated Victorian sentiments and the supposedly futuristic setting.

Princess Ida (Marit A. Medefind ’12) has been betrothed to Prince Hilarion (Joey Goodknight) since she was one. Before she comes of age, the princess forswears men and founds a women’s college at one of her father’s country houses, Castle Adamant. Hilarion attempts to woo Ida by disguising himself as a student at the college.

In this production, the Victorian drama was set on Mars. The excellently crafted stage was co-designed by Ethan R. Pierce ’14 and Lorin Gu ’15. Their interpretation of Castle Adamant consisted of a fortress-shaped geometric garden whose walls were covered with painted cubes. When the lights were dimmed the squares seemed to stand out of the façade as if they were three-dimentional objects as opposed to flat images. This effect enhanced the sci-fi aesthetic of the world the characters inhabited.

The ingenious decision to set the story on Mars evoked several cinematic images that complemented the themes of the show. The first is the aesthetic of 1950s sci-fi B movies, in which buxom actresses reprised the role of damsels in distress. This mid-century Hollywood trope is comparable to the social mores of the late Victorian era. Traditionalists in the 1880s were reacting to the newfangled women’s movement just like conservatives in the 1950s were trying to recreate traditional gender roles after Rosie the Riveter went to work during World War Two.

Gilbert and Sullivan’s controversial take on female education would no doubt displease most modern women, but much of the chauvinism in the show was satirical. The kooky setting added to the flippant character of the production and helped create a sense of over-the-top humor to mitigate the operetta’s offensive plot. Ida’s three bumbling and bellicose brothers (Luke D. Burkhart ’14, Jonathan N. Alvarez-Gutierrez ’14, and Mike A. Yashinsky ’11) were similar to the giant robots found in B movies from the 1950s. For example in the song “We Are Warriors Three,” the trio hilariously played up the juxtaposition between their futuristic armor and their clunky, awkward movements.

Fantastic life on other planets was a common trope in popular culture at the dawn of the 20th century. Depictions of the moon—such as the one found in Méliès’ silent film “A Trip to the Moon”—included over-the-top sets populated by strange creatures. The jerkily moving actors in this classic are wonderfully self-aware and even sheepish. The actors in “Ida” mimicked this visual style to great effect. Ben T. Morris ’09 shone as Ida’s father, the misanthropic and crippled King Gama, by combining Shakespearean wit with fantastically odd movements reminicient of the creatures found in Méliès’ classic. His actions were rigid and awkward, but in so doing he provided a brilliant caricature of the sort of acting representative of earlier films. This sense of visuality dovetailed well with the tongue-in-cheek camp of the operetta and helped mitigate the sexist themes with its humor.

Another image called to mind by the Mars setting was that of Charlton Heston’s classic 1968 film, “Planet of the Apes,” which was very fitting given the profusion of ape imagery in Gilbert’s libretto. In one of the most enjoyable numbers, “A Lady Fair of Lineage High,” the Princess condemned men for their baser instincts, saying, “Man, sprung from ape, is ape at heart.” Gilbert’s text uses this trope to poke fun at the entire male gender. “Darwinian man,” Ida sings, “though well-behaved / At best is only a monkey shaved.” Seeing Medefind’s excellently acted scorn while Goodknight tried to woo her in “Oh, Joy!—Our Chief Is Saved,” one almost expected to hear her speak Heston’s famous line from the his film: “Take your stinking paws off of me, you damn dirty ape!”

The ultimate moral of “Ida” was the outdated message that marriage brings harmony in the war of the sexes, but the playful approach of the G&S Players made the show too entertaining to condemn.