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'The Mikado': A Clever, Light-Hearted Night With The Hypocrites

Rob McLean, Matt Kahler, and Ezekiel Sulkes in a Chicago production of "The Mikado." (Courtesy Steppenwolf Theatre Company)
Rob McLean, Matt Kahler, and Ezekiel Sulkes in a Chicago production of "The Mikado." (Courtesy Steppenwolf Theatre Company)
This article is more than 6 years old.

If you want to know who they are, the Hypocrites are denizens of the Chicago theater scene whose fresh interpretations of long-established works have won them audiences around the country. For a short time only — until April 5 — the Hypocrites are honorary Cantabridgians, as Club Oberon in Harvard Square is hosting them for their fast-paced, fun and somewhat circus-like re-invention of Gilbert and Sullivan’s 1885 comic operetta “The Mikado.”

Ezekiel Sulkes and Shawn Pfautsch in a Chicago production of "The Mikado." (Courtesy Steppenwolf Theatre Company)
Ezekiel Sulkes and Shawn Pfautsch in a Chicago production of "The Mikado." (Courtesy Steppenwolf Theatre Company)

This isn’t the Hypocrites’ first time on Boston-area stages. The American Repertory Theater — which runs Oberon — hosted the troupe in 2013, when it brought its beach party rendition of another Gilbert and Sullivan favorite, “The Pirates of Penzance,” to the Loeb Drama Center. The previous December, the troupe’s version of “Our Town,” as envisioned and directed by David Cromer, startled and delighted audiences at the Boston Center for the Arts.

Most everyone has at least some idea what “The Mikado” is about, but in case you have forgotten the particulars, the topsy-turvy plot is essentially as follows: The citizens of Titipu, seeking to keep their town livable despite absurd new laws against things like flirting, have responded by awarding the post of Lord High Executioner to a man who himself has been condemned to death by beheading (or “bedding,” as the local dialect has it). Since Koko (Rob McLean) can hardly be expected to cut off his own head — and since he is first in line for any episodes of capital punishment — the townspeople feel assured that the threat of capital punishment has been held in abeyance.

Shawn Pfautsch and Emily Casey in a Chicago production of "The Mikado." (Courtesy Steppenwolf Theatre Company)
Shawn Pfautsch and Emily Casey in a Chicago production of "The Mikado." (Courtesy Steppenwolf Theatre Company)

But when a traveling minstrel named Nanki-Poo (Shawn Pfautsch) comes to town and falls in love with lovely local girl Yum-Yum (Emily Casey), the town’s fragile sense of peace is upended: Yum-Yum is already scheduled to marry none other than Ko-Ko, a state of affairs that drives Nanki-Poo to a state of suicidal despair. Coincidentally, the Mikado himself (Casey, in a dual role) — the great leader responsible for the atrocious laws — is headed to the town for a visit, and he’s displeased that the Lord High Executioner has not lopped off any heads.

To appease the Mikado, Ko-Ko and Nanki-Poo arrive at an arrangement: Nanki-Poo and Yum-Yum will be married, but after one month Nanki-Poo will submit to the executioner’s sword, after which Yum-Yum will marry Ko-Ko as originally planned. But kinks and twists quickly arise, not the least of which are two pressing problems. One: The law says that the wife of an executed man must be buried alive (poor Yum-Yum!). Two: Nanki-Poo, who has agreed to die after one month of wedded bliss, is none other than the errant son of the Mikado; he’s been on the lam to avoid an arranged marriage to a noblewoman named Katisha (also played by Pfautsch). The knotted narrative threads are skillfully untangled, in the way of comic fables, and a happy ending contrived, but not before the story takes us on a dazzlingly twisty ride.

This family-friendly “Mikado” is staged as a carnival, complete with roving minstrels, performers in mouse costumes and balloons — lots and lots of balloons. Rather than setting the play on a stage while the audience looks on, the Hypocrites have taken a much more interactive approach, scattering the audience through the performance space and allowing the actors and musicians to roam free. (There are no seats as such on the performance floor; instead, spectators perch on benches and move around as needed. There are seats and tables off to the sides of the room, however, and those with mobility issues will be comfortable there.)

Dana Omar, Emily Casey and Christine Stulik in a Chicago production of "The Mikado." (Courtesy Steppenwolf Theatre Company)
Dana Omar, Emily Casey and Christine Stulik in a Chicago production of "The Mikado." (Courtesy Steppenwolf Theatre Company)

While the songs and the plot are the same, the operetta’s rejiggering is not merely cosmetic; it changes the entire tenor of the piece to hear the opening number performed to an accordion, or to witness the “Three Little Maids from School” singing their introductory number while accompanying themselves on ukulele, flute and banjo. Gilbert and Sullivan had set the work in an imaginary version of Japan in order to get away with mocking Britain’s bureaucracy, but these orchestrations, together with the overall production design, removes the operetta yet again, transferring it to a dream world of fables and amusements. (The lyrics have been changed to remove reference to Japan, and a flag hanging on the back wall, though done in red and white, evokes Urban Outfitters more readily than any mythical Land of the Rising Sun.)

“The Mikado” remains a clever, light-hearted entertainment, and the Hypocrites have given it a high-octane dose of additional zing that even die-hard fans will embrace, while neophytes will finally understand the staying power of Gilbert and Sullivan. Will they think this is the way “The Mikado” has always been done? They might; and if they do, I’m certainly not going to tell them otherwise. As far as I am concerned, there ought to be more theater of this ilk, chock-full of color and fun that kids will adore. (Parents and adults without kids to bring along need not worry: There is plenty going on here for them, too, including a few slightly off-color jokes that will fly right over Junior’s head. Yours, too, if you’re not watching out for them.)

“The Hypocrites’ The Mikado” runs through April 5 at Club Oberon.

Kilian Melloy has reviewed film and theater for a number of publications, including EDGE Boston and the Cambridge Chronicle. He is a member of the Boston Theater Critics Association and the Boston Online Film Critics Association.

Kilian Melloy Theater Critic
Kilian Melloy is a contributor to WBUR's The ARTery.

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