I've written before about the morphing of the Shakespeare Festival at Ashland: how it has transformed itself from an earnest and perhaps sometimes reverential exercise into a son et lumière extravaganza where sometimes you can't see the bells for the whistles. These new-style productions happen often enough that I infer it's a board mandate, not just a director's jeu d'esprit. I assume the point is to try to reach out to a younger audience. This will work if (a) you actually do reach out to a younger audience and (b) you don't lose your older audience in the process. As I guess I've said, I think that sometimes Ashland brings it off, more or less, sometimes not.
Last night we caught this season's Pirates of Penzance, Ashland's first-ever venture into Gilbert & Sullivan and very much a venture into the new age. On a morphing scale I'd say it worked pretty well, and both the successes and the failures can teach us something about the possibilities of the genre.
First, some stuff that didn't work. They staged it in the outdoor Elizabethan theater. If you've seen it, you know that this is a purpose-built performance space, admirably suited in size and acoustics to allow good actors to convey a challenging script. But Pirates was not that: one it was miked up to the eyeballs, or I suppose I should say eardrums (Mrs. Buce said she liked it better after she stuffed in some cotton). Two, there was an orchestra--not huge, but big enough to make a big noise. Three, there were an awful lot of people on the stage, flailing and jumping and generally making a racket whose particular purpose was not always obvious to the casual viewer. On the miking, I suppose I date myself: I think that most theater is way louder than it needs to be these days, and that it thereby loses valuable nuance. But I suppose the train has left the station on that one: apparently the bankers want mikes, and evidently the management at Ashland thinks the kiddies want miking too.
Now some good stuff: I wouldn't have guessed it, but it appears that Pirates is one old warhorse that actually gains from being hoked up and reconfigured. Okay: not reconfigured a lot--there was still a lot more of G&S in this remake than there is of Shakespeare in some of the Shakespeare remakes they've done. What they've added are some non-G&S music samplings of--well, of almost everything, including, I suppose, a fair number of things that went right by me (I sometimes felt like I do when I watch The Simpsons, knowing that there are plenty of topical references that I'm just not going. But anyway: Mozart, Gershwin, Harry Belafonte, I assume Lady Gaga and heaven knows who else. Thing is, you come away feeling that this kind of merry irreverence is just what G&S deserve.
And more than just the music: the director imbued the whole performance with a kind of cheerful raunchiness, an easygoing vulgarity. It was fun enough in its own right, but more important, the presentation succeeded in detoxing G&S from just the sort of thing that makes you most uncomfortable about them. I mean the simpering, the prissiness, the victorian pretense. Nothing prissy about this Pirates, and as news, this is nothing but good.
Will we be seeing more G&S? I bet, and why not? If the audience buys it, might as well sell. Yet I'm not sure they will have the same luck a second time. Pirates has always seemed a bit second-rate to me: a little tired, a sequel, an attempt to repeat all the jokes that went over so well in Pinafore. Of course, that may be precisely why it works so well as a remake: recall Buce's theory that a second rate novel (e.g., Gone with the Wind)is likely to make a better movie than a first-rate, e.g., Portrait of a Lady. I'm not at all sure I can see the Pirates treatment working with, say The Mikado. So, might as well enjoy it while we can. But bring cotton for your ears.