October 25, 2001

Pixies Take on Parliament

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The Gilbert and Sullivan class wars are raging again at Ithaca High, thanks to the Cornell Savoyards. The Savoyards, Cornell’s venerable interpreters of Gilbert and Sullivan (one cast member is a second generation Savoyard) chose the little known work Iolanthe because “there are only 13 G&S operettas, and we wanted to perform one we hadn’t done in a while,” explains Amanda Smith. “While it’s not one of their more famous pieces,” she continues, “it could be the most beautiful score they ever wrote.”

The plot, in fact, is merely a structure on which to hang the songs. Like the better known Pinafore or Pirates of Penzance, it hinges on the intricacies and absurdities of the Victorian class system. In this case, instead of a pirate lusting after a modern major general’s daughter, or children switched at birth, the opposing parties consist of a band of woodland fairies and the British Parliament. Obviously, realism is not one of the main concerns of Iolanthe.

The play opens with the sprites welcoming back the title character from a twenty-five-year banishment. Apparently, Iolanthe had committed the one act forbidden to fairies: she had married a mortal. The focus quickly shifts from the heroine’s reconciliation with her family to the fate of her half-mortal son, Strefin. The action deals with his attempts to marry Phyllis (here’s where the ever popular societal plot device is introduced), a ward of chancery who cannot marry without the approval of Parliament. Eventually, the pixies face off against Parliament with the predictable comedic and romantic results. If you’ve ever attended a performance of a Gilbert and Sullivan play before, the above description will sound more than a little familiar. As always, the audience can predict the eventual outcome about five minutes into the proceedings, but all the fun’s in getting there.

In this case, according to Iolanthe herself, played by Ithaca College senior Angela Romacci, the Savoyards are injecting a fair amount of humor into the performance by taking “a timeless approach with a modern edge.” She continued, “We were able to reinterpret some of the puns for a modern audience and draw out some of the physical humor in the fairies.” The modern touches might explain the overt slapstick in the fairies’ opening performance, where a graceful ballet ends up resembling a game of bumper cars, with the actresses stumbling into each other and over themselves. It might also explain why the Lord Chancellor maneuvers around Parliament on a razor scooter. The melodies and lyrics are, by contrast, delivered as traditionally as ever with fine accompaniment by an orchestra composed largely of Ithaca College students.

The Savoyards consist of both Ithaca College and Cornell undergrads and graduate students, as well as professors, Ithaca residents, and high school students. Ithaca resident Robin Booth, a member since 1982, and this production’s Fairy Queen, believes that their diversity is the Savoyards’ greatest strength.

“The cross section of members is really one of the nicest things about us; you meet people from all over town,” she says.

“Ithaca has so much interest in the performing arts, and that allows us to draw on the greatest amount of people. That fact that we have this great space [the Culp Auditorium at IHS] allows the community access to our performances. Culp has terrific lighting and acoustics. We’re really lucky to have this space.” echoed Ramacci.

Competition for performance space has become increasingly stiff, between every music, drama, and dance group at Cornell, IC, and in the town itself. All are scrambling to reserve a spot for themselves in one of the too few available places. Ramacci bemoans the lack of suitable venues: “In a town with so much interest there’s also so little space. We’re so lucky to have Culp, even though we were only able to move in last weekend.”

Now that they’ve secured IHS, the Savoyards are concentrating on putting on a great show. The cast uniformly agree that Iolanthe’s strongest point is the beauty of its music. Robin Booth points to the first act’s finale as a particularly fine example. Ramacci’s own highlight is the Parliament literally “singing the parts of the orchestra. One of them takes the part of the trumpet, another one the bass and so on,” she says.

Although the play could hardly be described as a serious work, the cast insists that there is a deeper meaning. Amanda Smith believes that “it’s a commentary on class.” But this time the women aren’t “just typical Victorian maidens,” explains Booth. “It’s interesting that in a contest between whimsical, mostly female fairies and Parliament, the fairies come out on top in the end,” Ramacci concludes.

Archived article by Erica Stein