When the curtain is lifted on Brown University Gilbert and Sullivan’s new production, Princess Ida, the ensemble cast are assembled onstage as members of King Hildebrand’s (Ahmed Ahour ’19) court, gazing out into the audience with telescopes. They are looking for the eponymous heroine, whose failure to arrive breaks a marriage vow to Hildebrand’s son, Hilarion (Nicholas Renton ’19), made during her infancy by her father, King Gama (Reilly Hayes URI ’17). Gama comes instead with his three sons, buffoonish knights who are quickly imprisoned, along with their father, until Ida can be summoned.
Achieving this goal turns out to be more difficult than expected, however, as a liberated Ida has sworn off men entirely and founded her own women’s college, of which she is president. The only remaining option, Hildebrand’s court concludes, is to send Hilarion–along with his two trusty companions (Harlan Epstein ’19 and Jacob Laden-Guidnon ’18)–off to the college to reclaim Ida.
If all this set-up sounds like a lot, fear not: it is all taken care of in a breezy first act. The meat of the work is the second act, set at Ida’s college, in which the three young heroes dress in drag and attempt to infiltrate the women’s-only community to comedic effect. Naturally, of course, this premise is merely a foundation for a deeper exploration of gender roles and stereotypes. Unsurprisingly, Gilbert and Sullivan, writing in the late 19th-century, did not share all-too-similar views on such issues as Brown students in the early 21st.
This is to say that Princess Ida, as written, is a remarkably sexist work, and producing it in a style accommodating of present-day attitudes is a challenge. The crux of Gilbert and Sullivan’s intent is that a spoiled and ungrateful Ida has unnecessarily disrupted a perfectly good status quo manufactured by her father and his peers, and consequently must be mocked and eventually put in her place. As director Paul Martino ’17 points out in his Director’s Note, however, Ida is conceived as “a threat to patriarchal conventions, male domination, and heteronormativity.” In 1884, these traits were grounds for mockery, but in 2015, with a changed tone and the same words, Ida can function, as Martino puts it, as “a genuine saint.”
It helps that Ida, in this iteration, is interpreted by a performer as mature and self-assured as Meg Martinez ‘15.5. Martinez, aside from being the clear musical standout (it should be noted for those unfamiliar that Gilbert and Sullivan were a comic opera-writing super-team), plays Ida in a register perfectly suited to Martino’s progressive approach. Martinez reads Ida’s lines, meant to be shrill and insolent, so that they feel confident, justified, and–as Hilarion’s quest grows closer to success–tragically earnest.
A good deal of credit for the production’s success in transforming such an ideologically tone-deaf work should belong, as well, to Martino. He plays up the oafishness of the young male characters–Hilarion and friends, King Gama’s sons–and gives even the more minor female parts a chance to develop into three-dimensional characters. Notable in particular is Lady Blanche (Isabella Creatura ’18), Princess Ida’s number two at the university, who must have surely been written as an incarnation of the archetypal jealous woman but here is converted into a sympathetic mother whose career motives are easily understood.
Still, it should be noted that a relatively unchanged production of the original book can only go so far. The ending, which we will refrain from divulging here, is more or less irremediable, and Martino’s choice to play it semi-tragically jars with the otherwise jaunty and upbeat tone of the forerunning performance. Nonetheless, his Princess Ida as a whole is unexpectedly delightful, and fully recommended to past BUGS attendees and, especially, to those looking for a new student performative experience.
Princess Ida opens tonight at 8 p.m. and plays tomorrow at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m.
Images via Yuri Lee RISD ’17.