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Print Editions Thursday September 28th, 2023

‘Princess Ida’ sparks social consciousness

Play works with problematic source material in interpretation for modern audiences

Brown University Gilbert & Sullivan held their annual fall production this weeekend, performing a unique interpretation of “Princess Ida.” The reworked production featured a shifted tone and a more empowered Ida to make the play more accessible to modern audiences. The play tells the story of Ida — a princess betrothed in infancy who has since rejected men and founded an all-women’s university — as she struggles between the life she is obligated to lead and the one she has made for herself.

Directed by Paul Martino ’17, the play follows two narratives. The audience watches Ida, played by Meg Martinez ’15.5, educating female minds at her university, and her betrothed, Prince Hilarion, played by Nicholas Renton ’19, on a journey to claim Ida as his bride. Hilarion and his friends Cyril and Florian —Harlan Epstein ’19 and Jacob Laden-Guidnon ’18, respectively — sneak into Ida’s university at Castle Adamant and pose as female students. The real students, upon learning of the male intruders and Hilarion’s intent, prepare for battle.

Though the play was originally written in the 1880s to satirize the “radical” feminists of the day, Martino and his team reworked the play to portray Ida as a woman with whom the audience can sympathize, Martino said. They also attempted to address the perceived transmisogyny of the original production, while ensuring the integrity of the work, he added.

Though Martino said the play’s score is one of Sullivan’s finest, and the dialogue is well-crafted, alterations were necessary to bring “Ida” to modern audiences. The changes he made to the play are not only justified given current campus climate and identities at play, but also warranted by the work itself, he added. The original play “feels incomplete … it feels like it’s not ready for the stage,” he said.

Major edits were made to the original work, including the removal of the song “I Am a Maiden,” and the alteration of the final scene, Martino said. The updates were made to prove to modern audiences that the show, written in 1884, could still have relevance and relatability, he added.

“Our Ida is a much more serious and dramatic Ida,” Martino said. The original production’s Ida, who is, as Martino said, “really kind of a laughingstock,” sits in contrast to his revitalized Ida, who is thoughtful, poised and steadfast in her beliefs.

Ida’s emotional depth shines through in Act III’s “I Built Upon a Rock”— an aria that was initially intended to highlight what a fool Ida was. Martinez’s performance allows the audience to lament alongside her as she mourns the inevitable ruin of all that she had worked for.

The true standout moment for Martinez as Ida, and for Martino as director, came at the very end of the play, which took a signficant detour from the original production. Instead of Ida capitulating and marrying Hilarion as she does in the orginial production, Martinez’s Ida stands on the stage with Renton’s Hilarion looming ominously above, cloaked in darkness. Painfully and reluctantly, after several moments standing and staring out over the audience, Martinez takes Renton’s hand and moves slowly offstage.

“By upping that realistic acting, we sort of swapped the audience’s sympathies around. Rather than engaging with the men, I think they much more engaged with Ida,” Martino said.

The performance, which is an opera, owed much of its success to the music directors. The cast’s operatic singing, directed by Sami Overby ’17, accompanied by a student orchestra led by Kenyon Alexander ’18, beautifully complemented the thoughtful acting onstage. Alexander’s orchestra performed emotively and with such presence that it seemed at several moments like a lead character in its own right. 

The music, Martino said, is often what initially attracts the few theater groups that choose to perform the play, which is less popular than other Sullivan works due to its controversial themes. However problematic the content of the story may be, he said, there is no denying that “Ida” is Sullivan’s musical masterpiece.

Yoo Jin Shin ’18, BUGS publicity chair, said that the audience responsed positiviely to the performances over the weekend and to BUGS’s handling of the controversial content matter.

Shin said she made sure to clearly express the director’s intent and reinterpretation of the work on publicity materials in order to dispel any preconceived notions about the play’s content.

“I thought it was interesting how, on the Morning Mail that I learned about (the play) … they had to mention that it was controversial subject material,” said Mark Liang ’19, a Herald staff writer. Despite having mixed feelings about the content of the performance, Liang said the production was handled well and was sufficiently modernized while staying true to its roots.

“As sad as it is to say, there are many places in the world where an original, unedited production of ‘Princess Ida’ would be wildly successful and no one would even question it,” Martino said.

Though he and his team took special care in reworking the play for modern audiences, Martino said that there are certain aspects of the show, such as the cross-dressing of Hilarion, Cyril and Florian, which cannot be completely reconciled with today’s social consciousness.

The original intent of the show shone through in certain lyrics of songs and particular instances of dialogue, hinting that Ida and her students hate men and are less intelligent than the men from whom they shield themselves.

However, spirited and modernized performances, such as a bro chest bump between Ida’s brothers Arac, Guron and Scynthius played by Connor Lightsey ’18, Connor Watts ’18 and Kevin Do ’18, respectively, helped the performance along.

Despite the problematic source material, the cast and crew handled the performance deftly, keeping the audience entertained for all three acts.



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