I had a truly magical, joyous experience stumbling in to the Gilbert & Sullivan Players production of the little-seen “Patience” at the Symphony Space in the deadening cold that New York is now experiencing. I didn’t think I could ever laugh or respond, it was such a frigid night. But “Patience” rewarded my patience by having me laugh myself warm and silly at the lyrics’ surprising, sharp, satiric wit. It was the essence of camp, and an utter delight.
The G&S Players are a group of very dedicated Savoyards,as the ardent admirers of Gilbert & Sullivan’s marvelously giddy operettas are called. And these super singers have dedicated large portions of their life to appearing in, and TOURING, these wonderful masterpieces of wit and nonsense.
“Patience” is rarely done and may be the least known of the G&S canon. It was first produced by the Richard D’Oyly Carte at the Opera Comique in London on April 23, 1881 and on October 10 it transferred to the Savoy Theater which Carte had just built. Hence, the term Savoyards. “Patience” was also the first production to be entirely lit by electric light. It ran and ran.
I had seen a production of it by the English National Opera in London in the early 70s, but though magnificently sung, it wasn’t funny at all. I don’t think those tres serieux opera singers got the joke. But the Gilbert and Sullivan players sure do. I couldn’t stop laughing.
The character of Bunthorne, “a fleshly poet” was thought to be based on Oscar Wilde himself, and it was a satire of the whole Aesthetic Movement, which was all the rage in England at the time. But Wilde himself took no offense at its’ depiction and joined with D’Oyly Carte to go on a publicity tour to promote “Patience” and the Aesthetic movement all across America, where it hadn’t really ever caught on.
Oscar knew great PR when he saw it, and seized the opportunity, arriving in America and stating famously to customs “I have nothing to but my genius.”
The plot of “Patience” has two rival poets, one Reginald Bunthorne, the other Archibald Grosvenor, who in this production looks like Lord Alfred Douglas, Wilde’s young, notoriously blond and good-looking young lover, sought after by a chorus of “20 Lovesick Maidens We”, who reject the 20 Dragoons they are supposedly engaged to, because of their adulation of Bunthorne. Then in Act II the fickle maidens switch their affections to Grosvenor, played & sung marvelously by David Macaluso. The slim James Mills camped himself dizzy in the role of Bunthorne, not a “fleshly” poet, but an athletically lithe, hilarious one. His “Magnet and the Silver Churn” was terrific fun.
In the reduced scope of this production on the tiny stage of the Symphony Space on Upper Broadway, I counted only about 14 maidens, and the pit orchestra was also ONSTAGE. Supposedly hidden behind a black-draped panel, which at one point fell down, revealing the suitably embarrassed conductor and musicians. As I said, it was the essence of camp. And the aesthetic of camp allows for this.
Patience is the virginal village milk-maid whose affections, both poets vie for. In this production, however it was the basso profundo contralto actress/singer playing the plain, aging, massive Lady Jane ,Cáitlín Burke,who really knocked my socks off. She has the wonderful Act Two opening aria, accompanying herself on a cello, and lamenting her fate as she ages and “more corpulent grow I,” as she waits for Bunthorne to return her unrequited love.”There will be too much of me in the by and by.”
We can all relate. I haven’t laughed so much in a theater in years!