How beholden are we to artists’ original intentions? Surely a piece of art, regardless of when it was created, has the capacity to be interpreted differently by each viewer, no one interpretation being correct. And yet we often find ourselves trapped by such words as “tradition”, “classic”, “as-is”, and “originally intended”. Not that one should instantly disregard the original intentions of an artist as dated and therefore unimportant. Without an understanding of when, how, and why something was created we may abandon the original driving point of someone’s work. For example, today’s subject, The Mikado, a comic opera by W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, was written to satirize and lampoon prudish British culture and government of the time, but set in a fictitious version of Japan to disconnect the audience and the play enough that they did not feel directly attacked or judged. However, troubles with the show have arose in recent decades as The Mikado’s fully Japanese character list was often performed by white actors in yellow-face and taped-up “squinty” eyes. Troublesome indeed considering Gilbert openly stated, “[The Mikado] was never a story about Japan but about the failings of the British government”, so why the need to so grossly and directly stereotype Japanese culture? One would hope those who produce The Mikado would not feel the need to use white actors in yellow-face, or, if one felt the need to use white actors, to reestablish the setting as the English National Opera did in their 1986 production which set the story in a 1920s seaside hotel. Certainly the means in which a story is told should not matter, so long as the emotions of the piece are clear.
The Mikado: Reclaimed, a piece of devised theatre by Generic Ensemble Company in conjunction with Lucky Chaos Productions, takes place in a potential future in which Asian Americans are detained in internment camps for being immune carriers to a virus devastating the United States. The plot itself (as stated in the program) “…follows one cell block in one Q-Camp – the cell block which houses the creative Q-mates, who provide entertainment for the camp, and also perform Virus Times Live! Video telecasts”. The telecasts in question involve forced musical numbers from The Mikado purposefully performed in a grossly stereotypical Asian style in hopes to dehumanize and characterize them in the eyes of the public, though songs from The Mikado are also used privately among the characters to emphasize emotional moments.
Being a piece of devised theatre, in which the script and characters are created from a collaborative effort between the cast and director as opposed to a written script, the story had a lucid feel to it. The majority of “dialogue” was performed in silence through facial expressions, saving their few words for songs from The Mikado, and sparse dialogue in Japanese which, to the credit of the cast, was understandable purely through their expressions and tones of voice, for those of us who do not speak Japanese. Appropriately, the cast is costumed and made up entirely in grey, black, and white (designed respectively by Lirit Pendell and Amelia Turner who’s experience as a mime shows off in her cosmetics), which adds to the sullen silence pervasive throughout the production. Similarly, Ann Marie Gordon’s set design is equally grey and bleak, made mostly of wooden planks that suffice for the prisoners’ bunks. The rest of the design was similarly effective, the lighting and sound (Shelby Gebhart and David DeMaris respectively) were simple and effective, with a shout out to the violent static/shock sound which indicated the prisoners being electrocuted through implanted nano-chips. Furthermore, the video sequences directed by Leng Wong (who also acted as Q-Mate 101898) added a brutal, dystopian, and yet painfully real tone to the show as they depicted prisoner executions.
As for the cast, as mentioned, they were able to say a lot with almost no dialogue. It’s clear that they each took the effort to develop a unique character through the creation process, each with their own role in their small community. As singers they harmonized together beautifully, backed by a two-man orchestra (Alex Hartley and toshio alan mana) which offered plenty of versatility in and out of song sequences. Staging-wise, the cast clearly marked unique spots to call their own, and created a noticeable balance within the prison. Each had their own activity to keep themselves preoccupied from reading to playing cards (based on photos of refugee and internment camps viewed by the cast according to the talk back following the show). However, there was the occasional issue of pacing found in the production. Particularly a sequence in which the characters repeat the rituals of their daily cycles was originally effective for showing their trapped, monotonous state of living. However, after the fourth repetition the idea grew stale, and I wished for the story to continue.
However, when it’s all said and done, my biggest concern with the production as a whole was the frame story used to explain why Asian Americans were detained. As stated before, from the program and briefly in the show, individuals of East and Southeast Asian descent are immune to this apocalyptic virus, but can still carry and spread the disease. I question the forced detainment of individuals whose genetics could help discover a cure, plus the injustice of the scenario is dulled when it’s confirmed that they carry this supposedly lethal illness. I understand that along with the injustices inherent towards minority races in the United States this statement is riding off the contemporary fear-mongering towards Muslims proliferated by certain ill-informed politicians in the limelight, but the parallels don’t work. Perhaps if we were given a fictional situation in which the virus originated in East/Southeast Asia which fueled the fears of others who then chose to detain those of Asian descent because they are from the same region (much like the moronic masses who assume all Muslims are violent terrorists) it would make more sense. As is, it feels as though the cast is imprisoned for no real reason. The point is further driven home by a passing remark in the program that the prison also contains victims of the “recent Muslin Ban” which is never mentioned in the production save for one Muslim character who is otherwise not differentiated from the others in regards to their unjustified imprisonment and suffering. Of course, plenty of people are detained for no real reason all the time (disgustingly the US government can still legally detain anyone in the vague interest of “nation security”), but if I had not read the setting description in the program I would have been incredibly lost. Granted, I understand much of the imprisonment is meant to be allegorical in nature, particularly in regards to how minorities are viewed and judged by the ignorant, but the end result was still confusing at times. The intentions were clear, but they needed some polish.
It’s good to see that a classic piece of theatre like The Mikado can be reworked so the elegance of the music can be preserved while the racially questionable bits are trimmed. The Mikado: Reclaimed is a smart piece of theatre that tastefully borrows from both the original source material and the emotional response felt by those who view it. As devised theatre it certainly benefited from its free form creation by allowing the actors to find their own roles and story to tell, and yet through its devised nature come the imperfections that need some work. Director kt shorb clearly knew what she wanted to communicate onstage, yet the result was occasionally ungainly and, much like its source material, needs some trimming here and there. Don’t get me wrong, I encourage you to go see it. It’s an utterly unique piece of theatre. The actors impressively express raw human emotions through silent rebellion against injustice, but the story that ties this piece all together could be improved.
The Mikado: Reclaimed continues playing at The Vortex Repertory Company everyThursday through Sunday at 8pm until February 27th, with live streaming on Howlround.com/tv on February 26th.