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Making fun of the absurd

Publication Date: Friday Apr 24, 1998


Making fun of the absurd

Savoyards skillfully poke fun at Victorian fad in Gilbert and Sullivan's 'Patience'


by Betsy M. Hunton


We all know pretty much what we can expect from Gilbert and Sullivan productions, don't we? After all, they've been around with their very particular brand of satire for more than a century now. These bubbles of total absurdity are done with a straight face and some of the most enchanting music ever to come out of the popular theater. They're funny and pretty and take potshots at a variety of not-very-serious human foibles. And at the end everybody--well, almost everybody--is married off to live happily ever after.

Nice stuff, Gilbert and Sullivan, even when--as in "Patience," the Stanford Savoyards' current production at Dinkelspiel Auditorium--the Victorian allusions come so hot and heavy that at times it's a bit hard to follow what's being said.

Indeed, "Patience" as a whole is more time-bound than are many of the other works in the repertoire. The object of the satire, after all, is a Victorian fad that most of us no longer know much about: the rage for "Aesthetics," typified by the extraordinary affectations of the poets Oscar Wilde and Algernon Swinbourne.

It doesn't matter. Who could resist a chorus of rapturous maidens swooning over the charms of Archibald the All-Right? (Kevin Mallory). Certainly not the chagrinned officers of the Dragoon Guards who, one and all, had been engaged to the maidens and fully intend to be again.

The poor guards, who had counted happily on the glamour of their uniforms to win the maidens, find themselves out-flanked by the poets Bunthorne (Titus J. France) and Archibald--clearly meant as potshots at Wilde and Swinbourne. It seems the maidens' "tastes have been etherialized, our perceptions exalted." They've taken to following Bunthorne around en masse--an eternal passion they readily transfer to Archibald the instant he shows up.

The Savoyards' bright-eyed and bushy-tailed production is graced with strong leads and generally solid supporting roles. Marti K. Berg who plays the sensible village milkmaid, Patience, was clearly born to sing the major soprano roles in Gilbert and Sullivan productions. And, judging by the list of her credits in the program notes, she has spent much of her time doing exactly that. She's a petite blonde with a knockout voice and a total grasp of the role. They don't come much better.

Equally delightful in quite a different way is Titus J. France's hilarious Bunthorne. Based on Wilde, Bunthorne languishes about the stage in velvet knickers, carrying a lily and emitting painful groans as he struggles with the agony of creating his truly awful poetry. How could the maidens resist? Patience, however, has some trouble understanding what it's all about.

Both the male and female choruses have fine voices and have been directed in great comedic style. Stage director Jean-Marie Perchalski demonstrates throughout the production a real grasp of the wonderful silliness that has enchanted Gilbert and Sullivan's audiences for so long.

Despite its undeniable strengths, the production has some flaws. The bright and amusing costumes concocted by Greta Klevgard fail to make much distinction between the Duke, (Robert Seidel), the Colonel (Matthew Callahan) and the Major (Robert Dorsett). The three men have pleasant voices that blend well, but it would be rather nice to know which one is which. Archibald's voice seems less suited to his role than is that of the other leads. And Shelley Lynn Johnson is simply too young and attractive to be really convincing in the standard sexist, ageist Gilbertian role of the aging Lady Jane.

But basically these are pretty small potatoes. If we were handing out stars for productions, this one would definitely rate three out of four.

What: "Patience," performed by the Stanford Savoyards

Where: Dinkelspiel Auditorium, Stanford campus

When: tonight, April 24 and April 25 at 8 p.m.

Cost: $13 general; $8.50 senior; $6.50 student with ID

Information: 725-ARTS