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Topsy Turvydom 

by Michael Bowen

Gilbert and Sullivan are all about silliness. Characters with names like Pish-Tush and Pitti-Sing, semi-serious discussions about whether it's possible to commit "self-decapitation" -- an operetta like The Mikado appealed to straitlaced Victorians as escapist fun. Today, the attraction lies in the bounciness of Sir Arthur Sullivan's tunes and the pleasure of anticipating William Gilbert's next triple rhyme. Sexual mores have changed, too. In Titipu, flirting is a capital offense; in the Age of Britney, it's a vehicle for self-promotion.

Even our responses to the political dimensions of The Mikado have altered in the 117 years since it premiered at London's Savoy Theatre. While our taste for spoofing politicians hasn't waned in all that time, what has increased is our anxiety over the possibility at any moment of offending somebody, somewhere. Conservatives lambaste liberals with insisting on "political correctness" -- as if right-wingers would never imagine considering someone who disagrees with them as simply mistaken, misguided, incorrect. Our society values individual self-assertion over the common good, so we all become hyper-vigilant about being offended, about giving offense to others.

With its Japanese caricatures and its racist epithets, The Mikado is sometimes dismissed as a relic of a less sensitive era. But can't we all just lighten up? The slurs are -- and should be -- deleted, and, as for any condescension to the Japanese, well... do you really think that the vain lovers and pompous politicians of Titipu aren't mostly inspired by their British brethren? Gilbert was deriding (trying to offend?) his own society. The Chancellor of the Exchequer (who also has about a dozen other titles) seems laughable because he reflects the vainglory of so many Late-Victorian bureaucrats. You've heard of a self-important person being derided as a Grand Pooh-Bah? This is the play that invented Pooh-Bah.

Lake City Playhouse is currently offering up (through March 2) a version of The Mikado that, despite some slow pacing, freshens the political spoofing while displaying a surprising amount of prettiness.

In order to get the laughs intended, there's a tradition in the theater of updating Gilbert's topical references of more than a century ago. So when Dan Gookin appears in a black fright wig as Ko-Ko, expecting everyone to "defer, defer to the Lord High Executioner," he "has a little list" of people "whose loss will be a distinct gain to society." The revisions include references to lawmakers in Boise and the entire board of Enron.

When a sword self-destructed onstage Saturday night, Gookin even updated his ad-lib: "Stupid things -- Made in Japan." In that moment, the play became less a museum piece and more like a lively contemporary satire.

There was liveliness in the other roles as well. As Yum-Yum, the girl who Nanki-Poo and Ko-Ko squabble over, Pamela Stark acts coquettish enough to disguise the fact that she's older than most ingenues. Mincing in tiny steps, her feet peeping out from beneath her peach kimono, Stark knows how and when to giggle, when to cover her face, when to expose her neck and her vulnerabilities to her lover. She's so good, in fact, that perhaps she overdoes it: the coquetry becomes a catch-all, a stock response to her competing suitors. Still, whether singing or acting as one of the "three little maids from school," Stark is delightful in the role.

The cast's strongest voice belongs to Anthony Johnson (Nanki-Poo), who has considerable experience in local operatic circles. Johnson can belt out a love song, and he can handle the physical comedy, too.

Director Sandra Hardin Gookin achieves some notable effects. In one sequence, the female chorus twirled their parasols to coincide with their swirling movements. It's as close as one could hope to a Busby Berkeley effect in the cramped Lake City conditions, and choreographer Brook Bassett deserves credit. In "Gentlemen of Japan," all the male choristers snapped their fans expertly. A lovely image -- two lovers, spotlighted -- concluded Act One.

But Gookin's direction wavered at times. During the overture, she opted for the male chorus, all eight of them, to do slow-motion Tai Chi movements in time with Sullivan's kettle drum. The effect was needlessly slow and overly formal.

The five-piece ensemble backstage (guitars, percussion, woodwinds, keyboard) succeeded in projecting music with enough rhythm to accentuate Gilbert's rhymes and witticisms without (as in past productions I've seen at Lake City) drowning out the onstage performers.

Overall, the production didn't move quickly enough and lacked the visual polish necessary to satirize characters stuffed with pomposity. But it's a sporadically funny show, a collection of good moments. Perhaps the pacing will pick up later in the run, because you need speed to be silly. And we need some of Gilbert's delight in topsy-turvy fantasies, in Victorian silliness, to puncture our current pretensions.

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