“If you want to know who we are …”
When he is introduced into the plot of The Mikado, Ko-Ko, the tailor turned Lord High Executioner through an odd bit of topsy-turvy logic, reassures those surrounding him that he is not lacking for people he could execute. He elaborates his “little list / Of society offenders who might well be underground,/ And who never would be missed.” This is an opportunity that the Lamplighters seldom fail to take advantage of: to update the lyrics to poke fun of some of the recognizable and, well, annoying topical personalities that inhabit the human race. The audience is always delighted.
This year’s list included the person glued to her cellphone playing Pokémon Go, the gastronomic terrorist, the fool who voted for Brexit then googled EU after voting, and “the ego with the hair.”
One set of individuals they missed, though, were the political theorists who would revise history to assuage their sense of injured identity.
In a long explanation of their revision of The Mikado, the artistic directors of the Lamplighters point out that this favorite opera of the Victorian satirists has come under increasing fire from the Asian-American community for being Orientalist and racist. To honor that complaint the company has chosen to revise the opera, and to reset it in Renaissance Milan. The fact that they were able to change locales and retain both the sense and the humor of the play so easily gives testament to the fact that The Mikado was not really about Japanese culture, but rather about the foibles of English culture.
Of more interest to Gilbert and Sullivan were the deeply engrained and horrifying class system of the English, which still dominates the culture, and the absurdities of logic that are necessary for the maintenance of a traditionalist society in the face of ever changing human morals and standards. It cannot be denied that The Mikado was written during the height of English colonial expansion, and that Asia was viewed as Other—exotic, barbaric and regressive. That was not a one-sided stance, however, and differed greatly from that of Europe and the Middle East, which was ravaged by English and European political maneuverings.
In his “Concise History” of the play, Rick Williams, the Lamplighters Artistic Director, notes that Gilbert writes of “a very charming young Japanese lady,” who coached the singers daily on Japanese dances and deportment. A truly Orientalist production would depend solely on its own projection of Asian identity. That failure is one more likely found in American theater. This and perhaps the use of Japanese culture as a kind of window-dressing to the ideas of the play are perhaps the true points of objection.
In the current production only one song (and not much else) is completely changed, and that is the opening male chorus of “If you want to know who we are, we are gentlemen of Japan.” The only questionable song of the play. And I wonder if the dilemma of the play might have been equally well served if only the first song had been spun in a different way. That would have missed the point the company was trying to make about the adaptability the play due to its universality. That point and the company’s sophisticated approach to addressing it, however, become buried under the revision itself.
Changing the opening song to the gentlemen of Milan has its own problems. Simply switching one ethnic/ national identity for another is fraught with difficulties. In order to solve that, the company situated the production in the Renaissance, a pinnacle of Italian culture. All negative perceptions were avoided. The song becomes a celebration of the arguably best of European culture.
Such a good intentioned choice is somewhat reminiscent of animations by Walt Disney, where for instance, the Little Mermaid does not suffer and die as she does in Andersen’s story, her sacrifices unrecognized and her love unrequited, but instead goes on to marry the prince. We are a nation of Candides, in thought if not in political action. And as theoreticians point out there is a hypocrisy that is well served by that optimism.
All this is not to say that I didn’t enjoy the revision. I did. Gilbert and Sullivan are always funny, both musically and verbally, and many of the changes to the script were equally witty and funny. Such as the changing of the name YumYum to Amiam. And the changing of Katisha to Catiscià. Among the most immediate. It was also entertaining to see whether the company could effectively change the play and make it “work.” And they did. The revision is a hoot. The singing and staging were also splendidly realized. The orchestra, under the baton of Baker Peeples, was hot.
Experiments like this new version of The Mikado, which should have been named The Ducato, are beneficial because they make us reconsider the familiar. The failure of critics to recognize the historical position and relevance of the play is something that should also be noted, however, and is a serious lapse. It’s one the company’s revision throws into high relief. It doesn’t necessarily serve us to change things. Rather, we need to see these works for what they are historically in order to sort out the present: they are markers for how far we have come, or not come, in our progress toward becoming a more tolerant and generous humanity.
– Jaime Robles
The Lamplighters’ new version of The Mikado continues in Livermore, August 27–28. For information and tickets, visit lamplighters.org
Photo: Elana Cowen as Pizzi, Erin O'Meally as Amiam, and Allison Spencer as Pippa as the three little Italian Renaissance maids in the Lamplighters’ revision of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Mikado". Photo by Lucas Buxman.