The title “The Mikado” calls to mind images of a lovesick wandering minstrel, a Lord High Executioner and a trio of schoolgirls filled with girlish glee. But a big top? Indeed, a circus aesthetic prevails in the exuberant “Mikado” that will soon be running at Olney Theatre Center, in repertory with an equally unusual version of “The Pirates of Penzance.”
Created by the Hypocrites, an adventurous Chicago-based theater company, these “Mikado” and “Pirates” productions are immersive, eye-popping stagings that break with traditional interpretations of the beloved works. Director and adapter Sean Graney and his collaborators have dislodged “Mikado” from the faux-Japanese setting envisioned by librettist W.S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan for their 1885 operetta, relocating the action to a fantastical land that resembles a circus crossed with a carnival. And they have turned “Pirates” into a beach party, complete with a kiddie pool and inflatable toys.
The two family-friendly productions are performed “promenade style,” meaning the audience can move around the set, as the actors do, during the show. Despite the iconoclastic approach, Graney says, Gilbert and Sullivan aficionados have relished the productions (each of which is about 70 minutes). The adaptations, Graney stresses, were conceived in “complete reverence and respect to Gilbert and Sullivan.”
Olney Artistic Director Jason Loewith notes that the ebullient style of the Hypocrites’ productions “is not just silliness for silliness’s sake,” but instead illuminates the genius of “one of the greatest composer-librettist teams of all time.”
For G&S veterans and newcomers alike, the following is an illustrated primer on the “Mikado” half of the Hypocrites’ productions.
The Hypocrites, founded by Graney in 1997, are known for daring reimaginings of classic and challenging texts, including a production of Maria Irene Fornes’s “Mud” staged in an aquarium-like tank and the recent “All Our Tragic,” a 12-hour adaptation of 32 Greek tragedies.
“I look at the original intent of the author, and the original relationship to the audience of that author, and then I try to translate that intent and spirit for today’s audiences,” Graney says. For example, he says the “All Our Tragic” marathon aimed to impart to 21st-century theatergoers what it was like to attend one of the festivals of Dionysus that encompassed theatrical performances in ancient Greece.
Graney had the same priorities when the company began tackling Gilbert and Sullivan. The Victorian operettas, he says, were revolutionary in their time and “filled with such incredible joy and surprise and intelligence.”
The bright, giddy environments of the Hypocrites’ operettas are designed to evoke the delight and astonishment that the original audiences experienced. With “Mikado,” Graney says, he wanted the circus milieu to be “very colorful and joyful and clearly not of this world. I wanted people to be able to walk in and realize that it was a musical fairy tale.”
“The Mikado,” the tale of the minstrel Nanki-Poo, who has the misfortune to love the fiancee of the Lord High Executioner in the Japanese town of Titipu, premiered at a time when a craze for Japanese arts and crafts was sweeping Britain, Europe and North America. Gilbert’s libretto was inspired by a Japanese sword hung on his study wall, and a popular Japan-themed exhibition in London, in 1885, influenced the production.
Although commentators such as G.K. Chesterton have described the operetta as a satire of England, its vision of a nonsensical and bloodthirsty ersatz-Japan can strike modern sensibilities as offensive. Adding to the controversy quotient is that the ostensibly Japanese “Mikado” characters have traditionally been performed by non-Asian actors.
More recently, some companies have tried to jettison the show’s problematic stereotypes by eliminating most or all references to Japan. The Hypocrites’ “Mikado,” too, removes the story from any faux-Asian trappings. The original libretto, says Graney, “is inherently racist. . . . It was very important for us to get away from the Orientalism.” Other than preserving the word “mikado,” which it uses as a synonym for “ruler,” this production avoids any reference to Japan. The operetta’s opening lines — “If you want to know who we are / We are gentlemen of Japan” — now run “If you want to know who we are / We are citizens of this land.”
The 10 actors in the Hypocrites’ “Mikado” and “Pirates” double as the shows’ musicians, a strategy Graney admired from John Doyle’s production of “Sweeney Todd” on Broadway. In most musicals, he says, the musicians are “not a part of the theatrical event as much as I long for.” Doyle’s blueprint solved that.
Music director Andra Velis Simon says the two shows’ promenade staging precludes the use of large instruments such as a piano or even a cello. The cast’s instrumental skills also have influenced the orchestration. Because of these factors, Velis Simon says, the productions tend to have a musical color that some have described as “folksy.”
The Olney incarnation of “The Mikado” will feature actors playing guitar, ukulele, mandolin, banjo, violin, flute, accordion, harmonica, percussion and toy piano. As for the singing, “the vocal lines themselves are pretty much intact,” Velis Simon says. All in all, she notes, “even though we are not giving a concert-hall Victorian performance, we are definitely trying to be true to the original material.”
The circus-carnival theme for “Mikado” led costume designer Alison Siple to choose bright colors, loud patterns and striking hats that signal status. She was inspired not only by historical photographs of clowns and ringmasters, but also by the boldness and flair of the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” outfits.
Time and budgets ruled out making the costumes from scratch, so Siple shopped at vintage stores and then gave the garments exuberant makeovers, going heavy on the ruffles, rickrack and trim. “I wish I had measured in miles how much trim is in the show,” she says.
And given the promenade staging, theatergoers can get close enough to notice tiny costume details. “You can really see, ‘Oh, there’s a pompom sewed on every one of these polka dots!’ ” Siple says.
Scenic designer Tom Burch says the “Mikado” and “Pirates” sets figure in the creative team’s broader goal “to get the audience to loosen up about what theater can be.”
For instance, the “Mikado” set includes two circus-ring-style compartments containing balloons that theatergoers are free to play with. Another part resembles a carnival game booth, where a stuffed animal can be won with a well-aimed ball toss.
Another important element that might help the audience “loosen up”: a bar, where you can order a drink during the show.
Some of the show’s circus trappings are deployed in such a way as to evoke a sense of discovery and wonder, Burch says. For example, a facsimile of a knife-throwing wall transforms into a starry backdrop for a lyrical musical number.
“I cannot imagine that you will ever see another production of ‘Pirates’ done with tiki torches and beach balls,” he says. “And you’re probably not going to see another ‘Mikado’ done with stuffed animals and balloons.”
The Mikado and The Pirates of Penzance, reimagined by the Hypocrites. July 14 to Aug. 21 at Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd., Olney, Md. Tickets: $38-$65. Call 301-924-3400 or visit olneytheatre.org.