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The Yeomen of the Guard

Or, The Merryman and His Maid

By Vladimir Zelevinsky

Libretto by W.S. Gilbert

Music by Arthur Sullivan

Directed by Marion Leeds Carroll

Music directed by Alan Yost

With Bridget Copley G, Larry Seiler PhD ’85, Michael Goodwin, Kate Thornton, Andrew Sweet, Nathan Handspicker, Ming Wei Lim G, David Daly, Teresa DiGenova ’99, Eric Aubin

Presented by MIT Gilbert & Sullivan Players

The Yeomen of the Guard is one of the most interesting Gilbert and Sullivan shows. It’s one of the later ones, written when Gilbert was feeling more and more tired writing what was perceived as fluffy and light comedy, and Sullivan was sorely regretting his aborted career as a serious composer. Yeomen was an attempt to compromise, to create a show bridging their earlier comic works and the world of serious grand opera. As most compromises are, Yeomen frequently feels awkward and disjointed; on the other hand, when it works -- which is does, more often than not -- it’s revelatory, functioning as a kind of self-deconstructing experiment by G&S, providing a most unexpected perspective on their body of work.

The story starts in pretty much the usual fashion; after all, G&S wrote most of their stuff for the same opera company, Savoy Theatre, and mostly for the same group of actors. Therefore, we have the Romantic Tenor Lead, Soprano Love Interest, Comic Patter Baritone, Frustrated Contralto, etc. In this play, the hook is that young and handsome Colonel Fairfax (Michael Goodwin) is sitting in the Tower of London, waiting to be executed after being falsely accused of sorcery. But the tower is guarded by the Yeomen, and their Sergeant Meryll (Andrew Sweet) is an old army friend of Fairfax. What’s more, Meryll’s daughter Phoebe (Kate Thornton) is in love with Fairfax, and she knows that she’s very much liked by Wilfred Shadbolt (Nathan Handspicker), the Tower’s head jailer and assistant tormentor. So the plot to free Fairfax commences, along with a couple of other devious schemes.

Sounds more or less like regular G&S so far, doesn’t it? Well, it’s not. It’s much more somber, dark, and ominous, with the only source of humor (if you can call it so) being Wilfred trying to seduce Phoebe by telling her amusing torture anecdotes. The Yeomen’s entrance strikes an unexpectedly nostalgic note, and soon Phoebe likens the Tower to a monster that has to be sated with human blood. There’s very little levity in the story.

Knowing this, I was somewhat apprehensive before the MIT G&S production started. After all, MIT G&S is highly consistent when putting on enjoyable shows -- but as consistent when playing them entirely for laughs. That’s an entirely feasible artistic choice when performing something like The Mikado, where the undertones of darkness aren’t as pronounced as they are in Yeomen. Even the ghostly Ruddigore can be -- and was -- successfully done as a straightforward comedy. This is utterly impossible with Yeomen, where the theme of death is not only important but essential.

Fortunately, this G&S production, directed by G&S connoisseur Marion Leeds Carroll, does not go for laughs, and in the process achieves a good deal of artistic integrity. Beginning with the startlingly effective set, that of a monochromatical looming Tower, the mood is downright spooky, and it stays this way.

The mood, however, is not the only thing necessary, and some of the other things are lacking. It’s mostly because the good deal of the first act feels like Gilbert was trying to compromise his usual levity with the darker ambiance of this particular story, and the result feels somewhat lumpy. The pacing is a bit slow, and most of the musical numbers work only as illustrations rather than actions. For example, the first song of the play is utterly unnecessary: Phoebe takes about five minutes to sing that she’s in love, without even bothering to mention with whom.

And MITG&SP production clearly realizes that the narrative stops dead in its tracks during such numbers, and tries to energize them. As a result, there are a few scenes that feel overdone, overstaged, or overdirected -- nothing much, details only, but they are certainly noticeable. For example, most of that opening song is incomprehensible, because Phoebe’s spinning wheel (following Gilbert’s superfluous stage direction) is noisy -- as a matter of fact, much louder than the sung lyrics. I’m also not quite sure about the reason for two Yeomen to be constantly standing guard on stage throughout the whole show. It provides a nice visual counterpoint for stage action, and I’m sure it’s authentic, but there’s no really dramatic point for them to be there.

But slowly, step by step, both Gilbert and Sullivan settle into a new mood, and so does the production. The major turning point is signaled by the entrance of two strolling jesters, Jack Point (Larry Seiler) and his fiance Elsie Maynard (Bridget Copley). This scene is really crucial, not only providing the major boost to the story, but also providing the most sympathetic characters.

It also helps that both Seiler and Copley are excellent actors and singers. Along with Goodwin (giving another fine performance after playing Frederick in The Pirates of Penzance a year ago), they are capable of consistently clear melodic lines and usually clear diction, and their songs, like Fairfax’s “Is Life A Boon?”, and Elsie’s and Point’s duo “I Have a Song to Sing, O!”, working wonders.

By the time the Act I mammoth finale rolls along, all of the minor problems that were present before are not only gone, but also forgotten. Staging becomes clear and uncluttered; stage actions are direct; and acting transcends mere pretending.

It’s a curious feature of MITG&SP’s Yeomen that the more complicated it gets, the better it is. Some solos are fine, some are less so; most of the duets and all of the small ensembles and good; and all the huge choral numbers, with their interweaving melodic and narrative lines, work excellently. When I saw the show, the orchestra was supplemented by extra musicians. The downside was the harshly discordant and mistimed entrances; but the upside was that, after one or two shaky measures into the song, the orchestral sound was full and clear.

Second act is, surprisingly, even better. I can’t say there’re any truly exciting songs in Yeomen, but Sullivan compensates for that by writing several that are downright lovely, including the Act II opening “Night Has Spread Her Pall Once More”, as well as the “When a Wooer Goes A-wooing” quartet, and a most emotional reprise of “I Have a Song to Sing”. In addition, it’s touching to hear Sullivan finally realize his dream of writing a real opera, and feel Gilbert’s pain at being perceived as a simple joker-for-hire in Jack Point’s “Oh, a Private Buffoon”.

Soon I realized that, miraculously, I was truly and honsestly caring for the people on stage, having forgotten about the inherent staginess and the dramatic conventions of theatre. This is really the first time I felt this way at any MIT G&S production; and I’m thankful for that.

The very end is, again, a bit overdone; when Gilbert ends his libretto with an intentional moment of ambiguity (narrative as well as moral), here we have a very decisive ending. It’s impressive, no doubt, but I wished the final action was caused more by poignant heartbreak as opposed to more simple, and, thus, less affecting, despair.

In any case, Yeomen of the Guard ends up being a very impressive production. Just don’t go in expecting a plethora of easy laughs.