Performances for “Iolanthe” are at 7 p.m. Friday, Feb. 8, and 15 and at 2 p.m. Saturday-Sunday, Feb. 9-10 and Feb. 16-17. PHOTO BY TIFFANCY LAUFER

Comic opera pokes fun at politics, privilege



ELLSWORTH — For several decades now, the Gilbert & Sullivan Society of Maine has been providing theater-goers with the musical equivalent of comfort food to help see us through the dreary mid-winter months.

And really what could be more delicious in this season of hard-packed snow and treacherous ice than to enjoy our friends and neighbors portraying the antics of a bunch of British nincompoops as they sing their way through a highly improbable, romantic tale set in Victorian era England.

Truth be told, Messrs. G&S’s operettas, with their silly premises and witty, satiric songs, are the precursors of Monty Python, Mr. Bean and, well, the best in British humor for more than a century. G&S are still going strong in community and professional theater performances around the world.

So, anyone who would like a good two to three hours of laughter to get them through some grim weather and even grimmer times should consider a trip to The Grand the weekends of Feb. 8-10 and 15-17 to see this year’s production, “Iolanthe.”

For those who have not had the pleasure of a G&S operetta, “Iolanthe” is a terrific place to start.

Imagine a flock of fierce, misanthropic faeries clashing with a parliament of pompous male peers, all of whom wish to marry the same maiden, who in turn is smitten with a man who — from the waist up — is half faerie.

Throw in some mistaken and secret identities and a few timely faerie curses and you’ve got a hilariously horrible mess.

Directing this complicated kerfuffle is Dorothy Wheatcraft who, while relatively new to directing, has performed in several G&S Society operettas.

At a recent rehearsal Wheatcraft exhibited none of this directorial inexperience, as she maneuvered her cast of 30 or so about the stage for the finale number, creating interesting groupings and patterns.

But getting her cast to their places is only half the battle here. The intention of their move is equally as important to her.

“You men and you women suddenly find you have inadvertently wandered into close proximity,” she says. “You are horrified! You flee the scene in disgust!”

When it becomes apparent that several of the older cast members can’t effectively “flee,” Wheatcraft figures out a way for them stomp away a few moments earlier so they all arrive at their destination on time for the next bit of business.

Remember they are all singing while this is going on, so timing is hugely important.

None of this seems to daunt the director, who also is confident enough to edit and omit ideas, mid-stream, if they don’t work out, and get her group of exhausted, largely senior cast members to do it one or two more times until she is satisfied.

The explanation for her relative ease in this role may be found in her day job. As a Jackson Lab research scientist, where she also does a considerable amount of teaching, Wheatcraft is used to getting large groups of people to a place of mutual understanding.

She also is a self-confessed “geek” when it comes to all things mythological, and “Iolanthe” is loaded with references to various mythologies, which she is attempting to underscore in her production.

“At our first rehearsal I gave all the main characters a card explaining what I wanted to bring out in the characters,” Wheatcraft said. “And they were all excited to try something new.”

Her Fairy Queen, for instance, played by G&S vet Debra Hangge, will have elements of the winsome and petulant Titania from “Twelfth Night” and the more recent Disney bad faerie Maleficent.

While several of her principles, including Hangge, Irv Hodgdon, Roland Dube and Joe Marshall, have 10, 20 even 30 years experience with G&S roles, only baritone Marshall, who made his long-overdue G&S debut in “Iolanthe” some 15 years ago, is reprising his role as the Lord Chancellor.

Wheatcraft says she was completely on board for bringing something new to Marshall’s character, rather than simply repeating what he had done in the past.

The director also encouraged her chorus of faeries to create their own individual personas both in behavior and dress, reminding them that faeries are immortal and have thousands of years of lore and mythology from which to choose.

In fact, those who have seen “Iolanthe” before will likely find this version quite different with subtle nuances and — in the G&S tradition— fun lyric changes that are more relevant to current events.

There is still lots of work to be done before opening night, but it appears that the combination of an enthusiastic new director and an experienced cast will work the charm.

Performances for “Iolanthe” are at 7 p.m. Friday, Feb. 8, and 15 and at 2 p.m. Saturday-Sunday, Feb. 9-10 and Feb. 16-17. Tickets cost $20 for adults and seniors and $15 for students (15 and under). To reserve seats, call 667-9500 and visit grandonline.org.

Nan Lincoln

Nan Lincoln

The former arts editor at the Bar Harbor Times writes reviews and feature stories for The Ellsworth American and Mount Desert Islander.

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