I Was Born Sneering

With character names like Yum-Yum (Quynh-My Luu) and Nanki-Poo (Jesse Pimpinella), it doesn’t take much imagination to see that The Mikado has a problem with racism.  Indeed, when the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players (NYGASP) tried to mount a production of the opera last year, it was promptly cancelled amidst complaints of yellowface.

Faced with a difficulty that will only become more and more frequent as revivers of classic texts must confront the prejudices inherent to these texts, NYGASP commissioned a prologue by David Auxier which frames the production as the dream of an unconscious W.S. Gilbert (Joshua Miller) who has just seen a sneak preview of “the much anticipated, authentic Japanese exhibit at Knightsbridge.”  Thus, a work of Orientalist fiction is transformed into a work about Orientalist fiction.  This is, frankly, one of the most heartening instances of internet outrage, because in this case those involved have actually decided to listen.  And unlike, say, the publishers who chose to remove the word “nigger” from Huckleberry Finn, Mr. Auxier does the double work of contextualizing The Mikado‘s racism without bowdlerizing it.  Bravo.

Of course, all of this would be moot if the show itself were forgettable.  Fear not.  This is a delightful, first-rate production, overflowing with an amiable cast whose enthusiasm is positively contagious.  I was particularly entranced by David Macaluso, who plays the light-hearted Machiavel Ko-Ko.  Bearing a thick mustache and mutton chops, he comes across as an innocuous Ian McShane, plotting his machinations with gusto but always ready to abandon them when his better angels prevail.  Matthew Wages’ Pooh-Bah is also terrific, as he never misses an opportunity to pop his eyes or trill his Rs.  When he boasts that he can trace his ancestry “back to a protoplasmal, primordial, atomic globule,” we begin to see that The Mikado is more about Victorian anxieties—in this case over class difference and the then-ascendant theories of Charles Darwin—than it is about Imperial Japan.

This was my first encounter with the forty-year-old New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players, but it will certainly not be my last.  The operas may be fluffy, but this team has brought a level of sophistication and gusto which proves that fluff can be educational and a hell of a lot of fun, too.

The Mikado runs through January 8th at the Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College.  695 Park Avenue  New York, NY.  3 hours.  One intermission.

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Aaron Botwick

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