Marion Pratnicki is Katisha in the Hawaii Opera Theatre production of Gilbert and Sullivan's "The Mikado," at the Blaisdell Concert Hall.

‘Mikado’ revels
as un-PC

Island residents have been disappointed for years about the way Hawaii and its people have been portrayed in movies, on television, and in songs like "Yacka Hula Hickey Dula." What then are local Japanese to make of "The Mikado," Gilbert & Sullivan's perennial light opera, set in a Japanese village named Titipu and inhabited with characters with such archetypal Japanese names as Nanki-Poo, Pitti-Sing, Yum-Yum and Pooh-Bah?

Cultural comedy

Hawaii Opera Theatre presents "The Mikado"

Where: Blaisdell Concert Hall

When: 8 p.m. tonight and Aug. 13, 2 p.m. tomorrow, 4 p.m. Sunday and Aug. 15, and 7:30 p.m. Aug. 14

Tickets: $20 to $75, with all seats for tomorrow's matinee performance at $10

Call: 596-7858

Never mind that librettist William S. Gilbert was satirizing the manners and morés of late-Victorian England, and that the fanciful setting reflected the then-British public's fascination with all things Japanese. A cultural exhibition that was putting real live Japanese people on display was in London at the time when "The Mikado" opened in 1885 (Gilbert and composer Sir Arthur Sullivan hired some of the visiting Japanese as cultural consultants on matters such as movement and costumes). As for the characters' names, they weren't intended to be Japanese at all, but were simply in-joke references to various slang terms and products that were in vogue at the time.

Those facts haven't stopped self-appointed guardians of political correctness from choosing to find "The Mikado" offensive in recent years. The University of Hawaii's theater department presented a bowdlerized version in 1996 in which a professor and four students changed the characters' names, eliminated everything they took issue with in the "quaint (yet racist) libretto," and restaged it as kabuki.

Well, here comes Hawaii Opera Theatre's production, and artistic director Henry Akina doesn't buy into the racist argument.

"It's really sort of a comedy about human frailty ... and basic human absurdities," he explained, calling from his office last Friday morning. Akina is directing the company's precedent-setting, first-ever, summer production of "The Mikado" that opens this weekend, and he promises that it will be faithful in form and spirit of the story that Gilbert created in 1885.

"We take 'Mikado,' I would say, pretty straight. ... We have done some updating, but otherwise we stay pretty close to what Gilbert wrote. Political correctness is sort of an issue of the '90s -- the idea of people being offended by various things has reached a fevered pitch in our age -- and we didn't really want to deal with that (because) 'The Mikado' is not supposed to be offensive to the Japanese or to the British."

Mary Chesnut-Hicks, left, plays Peep-Bo, Cathy Foy plays Pitti-Sing and Kathryn Krasovec plays Yum-Yum in "The Mikado."

GILBERT WAS well-known for numbers that satirized the affectations of culture snobs, mindless bureaucrats, badly written theater, lawyers, and similar broad targets. It has become customary over the years for directors to replace some of his victims with others that a contemporary audience can relate to. Akina has been doing that as well for the benefit of local audiences, making additional changes to keep up with the daily news.

"It has lots of wonderful innuendoes and lots of wonderful nonsense which, depending on what the day is and who the political figures are, can change rapidly. When we started rehearsals, we were still facing (Governor) Linda Lingle's arts (fund) cutting and she actually made the list. However, since she reinstated the arts funding, we've taken her off."

Akina is also trying to make "The Mikado" more appealing to local audiences by adding elements of contemporary Japanese-American culture to the production, rather than following the example of some other opera companies that have removed the Japanese locale entirely to instead set the story somewhere in England.

"It didn't seem to me that it would be right to go in the direction of the New York City Opera or the English National Opera ... and ignore the whole Japan thing. Productions like that have been very fashionable nationwide, but that's not exactly the way I wanted to do it and I don't think that's something for Honolulu. On the other hand, we know that the way these (characters) act is not terribly Japanese, and so we've put in points of confrontation in the performance where things that are sourced on authentic Japanese things are used."

This includes having Kenny Endo add taiko drumming to much of the action, casting sumo wrestler Ace Yonamine as the Lord High Executioner's sword bearer, and enlisting Japanese Consul General Masatoshi Muto as a supernumerary character who, as Akina describes it, will "walk through the action basically saying that this is a different Japan than the one he represents."

"There are traditional areas of updating (the script) and there are other areas where people are very religious about not changing. I've tried to make the human comedy clearer rather than look at it as something ethnic or cultural or whatever, and we're rather unabashed about (sticking to the original story) -- but we do have the joy of taiko, too!

"It seemed a way to include the Japanese community in maybe enjoying 'The Mikado' and being inclusive rather than exclusive (by going in) either in the British or the Japanese direction. I think there'll be a rich theatrical event that people can enjoy and, hopefully, on many levels."

Michael Gallup, left, is Pooh-Bah, Jordan Shanahan is Pish-Tush and Curt Olds is Ko-Ko in "The Mikado."

On the cover: Kevin Anderson is Nan-Ki Poo and Kathryn Krasovec is Yum-Yum in the Hawaii Opera Theater production of Gilbert and Sullivans "The Mikado" at the Blaisdell Concert Hall.

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