Sunday, July 14, 2013

Performance: A Bit of Gilbert and Sullivan

The Gondoliers (or, The King of Barataria) performed by the Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society, Seattle Rep, until July 27th

Even if you've only grazed Gilbert & Sullivan in popular culture (Linda Ronstadt, Groucho Marx, Sideshow Bob), you know about the big guns in their canon - Mikado, Penzanze, and Pinafore. Then there is the second tier not so well known - Utopia, Limited, Iolanthe, and here, The Gondoliers is godood G&S, but not one where everyone is aware of the plot. So let's call it minor canon, lesser Gilbert, reduced Sullivan.

And this is a performance of the Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society, which each year in the summer does about three weeks of Messrs G&S, rolling out the big guns and also paying attention to the second tier of the canon - the ones that won't get a major motion picture.

So, the Gondoliers, set in Venice and Spain - a light, sunny, breezy comic opera with just a bit of the Spanish Inquisition. No, that comes later. Let me fill you in on the plot, which is a simply tangled as a Gilbert plot can be: Two brothers who are gondoliers in Venice get married. Except it turns out they aren't really brothers, as one was brought to the city as an infant to escape the influence of his father, the King of Barataria, who became a Wesleyan Methodist and was later killed with the rest of the royal family, leaving the son the singular heir. But no one is particularly sure of which brother is the king, and which remains the gondolier. Oh, and the one that is the king was also married by proxy as an infant to Casilda, the daughter of the Duke of Plaza-Toro an impoverished noble (whose suite consists of a single drummer, who Casilda loves). No one is pleased with the situation, as the unknown king is also an unknown bigamist, and who is truly married to whom drives the play (though with several diversions).

The gondolier semi-brothers decamp to Spain, where they enact a Monarchy with Republican principles where they end up doing most of the work and living like less-than-kings. Their brides follow them and all discover the situation with Casilda. The nurse, mother to the drummer, who brought the infant king to exile is produced  to reveal who is the rightful ruler, and who remains married to whom. And then it is all wrapped up with a neat little bow.

And yeah, it doesn't make much sense than what I described, but it was light and appealing, and every single character is not the sharpest halberd in the guard. Except the ensemble. Someone has probably done a doctorate on this, but in Gilbert's work there is a tendency that the chorus does the best of the characters on-stage - and they seem to be at least a half-step ahead of the primaries and more than willing to take advantage.

There are light jabs at the monarchy and republicanism and corporatism, the last with the Duke, who escapes his impoverishment by turning himself into a Limited Liability Corporation. However, the singing good and the performances are top-notch and the chorus, as always, is solid and inventive. And it is hard to say whose story is the center - Casilda, whose marriage is in question, or the Palmieri brothers and their brides. All are good, though one Palmieri is a stronger singer while the other has better comedic moves, but they are both played by actors named Derek so I have a bit of a challenge determining who is who.

And there is a through-line with Grand Inquisitor, Don Alhambra, who is the closest thing that you get to a villain in a G&S production, who moves the action along, lays out the challenge of the unknown brothers, summons the resolution, and still has some time for a bit of torture on the rack. It is light and breezy bit of torture, but doesn't seem to be in my copy of the libretto, so I wonder if it a stage tradition or was part of the original play. I mean, one of the stop-the-presses the moment in the production was a Spanish Dance, which is merely noted in my print version as "(Cachucha)" inserted between the lines. Perhaps the torture is in the same mode.

In any event, it is a little gem of a operetta, put together in a sharp and enthusiastic production. If you are a fan of Gilbert & Sullivan, it is well worth your time. If not, you might want to hang out with the wiki entry before you go, just to get an idea of what's driving the play.

More later,