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At the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Elizabethan Theatre to September 8
If you’re the sort of theatergoer who likes witty updates of repertory standards, you might be intrigued by the prospect of Interact Theatre Company’s Scottish-themed Mikado. And if you’re the sort who likes changes rung nimbly on an old tune, as opposed to wrung vigorously from it, you may come away a little disappointed in the outcome.
That’s not to say Interact’s adaptation isn’t at least moderately clever. Director Catherine Flye moves the whole giddy story to the Highlands circa 1897, substituting a rigidly unamused Queen Victoria, who has imposed an absolute ban on flirting, for the stern and somewhat bloody-minded Japanese monarch of Gilbert and Sullivan’s title. The Mikado’s wayward son, disguised as a wandering minstrel and calling himself Nanki-Poo, becomes Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, who’s traveling incognito as an itinerant bagpiper named Nanki McPoo. The predatory noblewoman Katisha, meanwhile, is reconstituted as Caddysha, the deliriously lecherous Dame of Sark, intent on getting her hooks in the prince.
But McPoo loves the nubile schoolgirl Morag McTaggart, known to chums as Yum Yum, and Yum Yum loves him back, though she’s ignorant of his true identity. Complicating the matter further is Ko Ko, the decidedly unbloodthirsty former tailor who’s been appointed Lord High Executioner of Titi-on-the-Poo (formerly Titipu); he’s Yum Yum’s guardian, and he intends to marry the lassie himself. But before that can happen, he’s got to find someone to execute, or the Queen will have his head. Luckily, McPoo, distraught because he can’t have Yum Yum, threatens suicide, which makes him the perfect candidate for official extinction. All this drama plays out, if you please, in the hotel lobby at the fabled Gleneagles golfing resort (beautifully realized by designer Janice E. Manser).
Flye’s decision to uproot Ko Ko and the gang is breathtakingly audacious, but she makes a solid case for it, pointing out in a program note that The Mikado is chiefly a satire of British society’s foibles, and arguing that the original setting probably was inspired by an Oriental fad sweeping London at the time the piece was created. Any lingering doubts are dealt with in a brief introductory voice-over highlighting the similarities between the Mikado (perceived by the Japanese as “four-fifths monarch and one-fifth god”) and the Queen-Empress, who near the end of her long reign withdrew almost completely to Scotland’s Balmoral Castle; her subjects, Flye says, saw her as “five-fifths monarch and something of a god besides.”
Sounds logical enough, no? And it is: The trouble with this Mikado isn’t in Flye’s concept, it’s in the—ahem—execution. Nick Olcott’s script adaptation is almost (but not quite) quick-witted enough to make Titipu’s relocation worth the excess of argyle it inevitably entails. Take the way he’s dealt with the name changes for Yum Yum’s foster sisters: Pitti Sing is so called because her full name (in this version) is Penelope Singleton-Smythe, and Peep Bo is short for Priscilla Beauchamp-Bennet. Frightfully amusing, that, especially if you’ve ever met a Sloane Ranger. But Olcott doesn’t follow through; distilling “Yum Yum” from “Morag” is a bit of a reach, and he doesn’t even bother to try with some other characters.
There’s a similar unevenness in the lyrics he’s adapted. The opening number, “If you are wondering who we are,” is certainly facile enough: “The copyright’s long expired,” sings the chorus by way of explaining Mikado’s continental drift. But other ditties, including “And I have caddied for a month,” don’t bear the revisions as well; as often as not, Olcott’s references to things English and Scottish seem less ingenious than desperate. In general, the translation is frequently inventive but never inspired, sometimes amusing but never bitingly so.
The production is reasonably well sung; Steve Cramer croons winningly as McPoo, and there’s some genuinely beautiful ensemble work in the big choruses. “Three little maids from school are we,” a timeless charmer even for those who aren’t huge G&S fans, is splendidly done, its harmonies tight and its rhythms precise. Eileen Ward’s Yum Yum is occasionally shrill, though, and Larry Edward Vote’s orchestra is often more than a little tinny. The show-stealers are Kate Kiley and Terrence Currier. They’re both marginally amusing in the first act, but they don’t really get a chance to demonstrate their chops until late in the evening, when they patter deftly through the tongue-twisting duet “There is beauty in the bellow of the blast,” wherein Caddysha and Ko Ko find happiness despite the ruin of their plans. She’s over the top in her feathered turban and acres of cabbage-rose chintz; he’s low-key and wry in his kilt (boxers under it, if anyone’s wondering). And wonder of wonders, they even manage to create a little sympathy for two thoroughly unsympathetic characters.
On the whole, though, there’s a curiously enervated feel to the production, as if the performers are just a little too self-conscious about the concept to really let themselves go. They’re in the Highlands, yes, but they don’t seem quite ready for any sort of fling. CP