Witty ‘Iolanthe’ gets modern twist

By
Friday, April 3, 2009

Love is truly in the air for the Brown University Gilbert and Sullivan’s production of “Iolanthe” this weekend in Alumnae Hall.

Beyond the show’s multiple intertwined love stories, the BUGS cast itself had a clear affection for the show’s witty, comical and quick dialogue and musical numbers, written in 1882 by the team of librettist W.S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan. This passion, along with some original and creative twists, gives “Iolanthe” a fresh, light and engaging feel that brings the love offstage and into the audience.

The operetta begins with a chorus of fairies dressed in earth tones giggling and frolicking around the stage as they sing the tale of the fairy Iolanthe, who was banished after falling in love with a mortal man. Iolanthe’s son Strephon, who is half fairy and half mortal due to his mixed parentage, has fallen in love with and plans to marry the beautiful Phyllis, an orphan under the legal protection of the court.

Conflict emerges when Phyllis’ caretakers, the noble lords of the state, do not allow her to marry Strephon, hoping instead that she will marry one of them. Over the course of two hours, the show pits Phyllis against a chorus of love-struck suitors vying for her affection, including the Chancellor and two lords who ultimately decide they love each other more than Phyllis.

The decision to make the two lords’ relationship more than just platonic came from the show’s first-time director, Alex Hills ’11.

Hills said that as he was reading the play, his first thought was that the two were not friends as the dialogue suggests, but rather “friends.” This initial response became part of Hills’ concept in directing the show.

The budding romance between the two lords, played charmingly by Ravi Ramanathan ’09 and Nick Leiserson ’09, results in one of the most amusing numbers from the show. After Phyllis decides that the lords must figure out between themselves which one will marry her, the two realize they will have to fight to the death. Departing from the original intent of the show but without changing any of the dialogue, the BUG’s production turns a fraternity’s sentiment into a comedic scene of sexual revelation.

Hills said the production featured “a fair bit of creative license without seriously altering the original concepts. We didn’t want to do ‘Iolanthe In Space’ or anything like that.”

Having never directed or even acted in a show before, Hills said that being the director of “Iolanthe” was incredibly difficult yet also somewhat liberating.

“I had no concepts of what should be done or how they should be done. It was like language immersion,” he said, adding that having a dedicated cast whose knowledge and admiration of Gilbert and Sullivan, as well as theater in general, made the experience much smoother.

The decision to turn a friendship in the show into a romance made funny scenes even funnier and a story set over one hundred years ago feel a bit more modern. But, even in its original form, the show explores issues of tolerance, acceptance and women’s equality, giving it a persistent relevance.

Despite being written well before women’s rights was an accepted concept, “Iolanthe” presents women who have the strength, power and intelligence to call the shots.

In the show, the fairies overrun the parliament and ultimately end the reciprocal animosity and prejudice between mortals and immortals. And Phyllis is portrayed as neither a passive nor a treacherous vixen, but instead as a woman who has control over her own destiny and heart.

Despite Phyllis’s power to say yes or no to any of her suitors, one of the more odd and amusing attractions is her father figure, the Chancellor, who ultimately admits his agonizing desire for Phyllis. Whatever Freud might have thought of this, the inner turmoil for the Chancellor is excellently played out by David Deull ’09, who prances around the stage in a curly white wig doing walks silly enough to give Monty Python a run for their money.

Not only did “Iolanthe” have a first-time director, but the musical director, Matthew Jaroszewicz ’12, is also making his conducting debut in this production. While Jaroszewicz was new both to conducting and to Gilbert and Sullivan’s works, he said discovering people who love music as much as he does “was such an eye-opening experience.”

This production makes a classic and time-tested work even more entertaining and enjoyable. While at times the speed of the songs makes the words hard to decipher, the entire cast’s pleasure in performing them is evident. Because the cast is having such a good time, it seems hard for an audience not to as well.

“Iolanthe” runs Friday through Sunday in Alumnae Hall with evening performances at 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday and matinees at 2 p.m. on Saturday and 3 p.m. on Sunday. The show is free and open to the public.