Sean Graney, mad genius founder of the Chicago theatrical troupe, The Hypocrites, has made himself a lovely home in the oeuvre of Gilbert and Sullivan. But he did quite a bit of remodeling on the way.
Graney’s Pirates of Penzance, which I saw almost three years ago, was his first foray into operetta; he added a new wing with last year’s production of The Mikado, delightfully revived in time for me to see it in Chicago over Thanksgiving (full disclosure: my nephew is in the company, and in this production); and word has it Pinafore is up next. So he’s clearly got an affinity for the work.
But that’s surprising, because Graney’s sensibility would seem to be at odds with G&S in a number of ways.
Most obviously, G&S were social and political satirists, and satire necessarily points outside of itself at the thing being satirized. Graney’s style of theater, however, pretty comprehensively rejects that kind of double consciousness; it’s all about what is happening in the room, right here, right now. So, where other directors might update a satirical patter song to zing more contemporary targets, Graney is more apt to cut it altogether, no matter how beloved the song in question might be. In the previous mounting of The Mikado, Graney cut “I’ve Got a Little List” entirely, and in this production it is trimmed substantially and all references to the world outside the theater have been removed. “A More Humane Mikado” has been cut even more drastically.
As well, G&S comes out of a 19th century British world fairly barnacled with rules and highly conflicted about feeling – devoted to melodrama and grand opera, but formally committed to a conception of virtue that amounted to a stoic denial of normal emotions (for both men and women). Graney has no such conflict, has little use for rules, and doesn’t seem to be much interested in repression; his humor has a contemporary, distinctly American sensibility. Finally, Sir Arthur Sullivan’s music is informed by (and sometimes aspires to join) the operatic tradition, and the plays were originally conceived for a proscenium, while Graney’s productions are promenade theater, with the audience continually hopping up to get out of the way of the advancing actors, and his musical sensibility is hipster pop – his actors play their own instruments, guitars predominant among them.
So why has he gravitated to – and had so much success – with Gilbert and Sullivan?
It’s not just that the work is public domain, and it’s not just that its familiar enough that he can take whatever liberties he likes without losing his audience. (Do you actually remember the plot of The Mikado – or just the songs?) I think the kinship he’s found is on a deeper level. For Graney, theater is not about acting, primarily, but about playing – the spirit of play. And that is something William S. Gilbert understood as well. As Mike Leigh revealed so brilliantly in his film, “Topsy Turvy,” underneath the social satire is a satire on sentiment and feeling that, in turn, taps into a deep, and universal, sadness. Graney just turns that sad clown’s frown upside down.
I mean that pretty much literally. His Mikado is set in a cross between the Sgt. Pepper’s album cover, the apparent inspiration for the delightful costumes (by Alison Siple), and a circus tent designed (by Michael Smallwood) for Paul Rubens, complete with a flame red tricycle and acres of balloons. From the very first line, we know we are not in Japan – these are “gentlemen of this land,” wherever it might be that Titipu is. Once again, he goes in for innovative doubling – in Pirates, the inspired choice was doubling Mabel and Ruth; in The Mikado, it’s doubling Nanki-Poo and Katisha. (He also doubles the Mikado with Yum-Yum, which makes for a nice wink at Yum-Yum’s ambitions as revealed in “The Sun Whose Rays Are All Ablaze,” but the Mikado doesn’t actually have much to do in the show, so the impact of the doubling is limited pretty much to just that one joke.)
And, again, amid all the zaniness he zeroes in on the most heart-felt moments. In Pirates, the big surprise was General Stanley’s late number, “Sighing Softly To the River,” a lovely song that is pretty much always crushed by the comic business of the pirates (General Stanley sings the song as his house is being invaded, oblivious to the pirate invaders until its end), but which Graney played against the humor of the General’s own outfit (bunny-slippered feet pajamas, if I recall correctly) but without distraction, so the humor only deepened the pathos of the song. In The Mikado, the equivalent moment is Katisha’s “Alone And Yet Alive,” played with entirely sincere feeling – and therefore all the funnier. And playing the song as a moment of sincere pathos sets up Ko-Ko’s number, “Willow, Tit-Willow” much more effectively, and makes that number play as, if not a sincere love song, then at least partly a sincere attempt to ease another’s breaking heart. Which makes it funnier as well.
There are things I could quibble about. It would be nice if Shawn Pfautsch’s Nanki-Poo had more chemistry with Emily Casey, who plays Yum-Yum (whose overwhelming self-love is entirely appropriate to the character). There’s some weird staging to their lovemaking such that it mostly takes place at a great distance, so perhaps this was a directorial choice, but I’m not sure I understood it if so – unless it was to highlight how much better his chemistry is as Katisha with Ko-Ko (the excellent Robert McLean, making a very sad clown indeed). And Matt Kahler gives us a very traditional rendition of Pooh-Bah that, though perfectly charming, isn’t entirely in keeping with the zaniness of the rest of the production.
But these are minor quibbles to a production that is a general delight, and a wonderful way to warm up a chilly Chicago evening.
The Mikado plays in Chicago at the Steppenwolf Garage through December 29th.