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Milwaukee Opera Theatre Revives 'The Mikado' in Topsy-Turvy New Version

Feb. 28, 2017
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Photo credit: Dale Reince

The Mikado was always a hilariously luxuriant spectacle built around the melodious music of Arthur Sullivan. But W.S. Gilbert’s libretto for this 1885 operetta has raised some eyebrows in recent years for seeming to make a particular culture bear the brunt of its humor. And then there are the customary production practices that date from its premiere at London’s Savoy Theatre involving Caucasian actors in Asian makeup playing Japanese characters.

What can be done with The Mikado in our era of greater cultural sensitivity? Two years ago Milwaukee Opera Theatre found a way around the operetta’s problematical aspects with its riotously successful staging of The Mikado. Audience response was only one reason for reviving it so soon. “We knew as soon as it closed that this one wasn’t done yet,” says MOT Artistic Director Jill Anna Ponasik. “It took on a life of its own.”

One way to think about The Mikado is to realize that the comical Japanese setting was really a screen behind which to stage a satire of Victorian England. But in talking through the text, MOT eventually decided to transcend entirely the period in which it was written.

“There are some pieces in the canon that it’s time to retire, but not The Mikado,” Ponasik says. “We wanted to find some other way to perform it without being offensive and we worked through our idea in steps … By the time we performed it, we left behind both Japan and England.”

In MOT’s reimagining, the operetta’s Town of Titipu is now a playground of percussion instruments, including gongs suspended from the ceiling. Sullivan’s music will largely be performed by the cast on a battery of glockenspiels, opera gongs, toy pianos and boomwhackers—along with a bit of guitar, a little flute and trombone, and a beat-up piano whose strings will be plucked with a guitar pick.

“It felt comfortably embodied by the cast—and it feels pretty Milwaukee,” says Ponasik, despite no evident allusion to MOT’s hometown. “We let go of superficial things to find something essential in the piece. By not pretending we were Japanese, or that we were English actors pretending to be Japanese, The Mikado became alive again,” Ponasik continues. “We’re embracing the topsy-turvy world of Gilbert and Sullivan where the rules don’t make sense because they are carried to such logical conclusions. It’s about the absurdity of the rules we create for ourselves.”

MOT has made a name for preserving the outlines of classics while coloring them in unexpected hues, most recently with its carefree take on Mozart, Zie Magic Flute. Will traditionalists be outraged? “I’m always braced for that response,” Ponasik says, “but we slant things so that someone accustomed to the Gilbert and Sullivan of kimonos and geisha wigs will be given something rich and interesting to pay attention to.” 

The T-shirted and sneakered actors will be almost identical to the 2015 cast, and yet, the upcoming production won’t be a carbon copy of its predecessor. “Having sat with the piece for two years, people will come to the table with new thoughts,” says Ponasik, explaining the organic nature of MOT’s productions. “We settle on creating a structure and a direction to move in, but the artists have creative engagement—the actors have a lot of agency in the final product. We make theater together based on the interests of the artists involved.”

Milwaukee Opera Theatre performs The Mikado, March 16-26 at Next Act Theatre, 255 S. Water St. For tickets call the Next Act box office at 414-278-7780 or visit milwaukeeoperatheatre.org.

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