An aesthetically pleasing 'Patience' entertains all

ROCKVILLE – Theater-goers who attended the University of Maryland School of Theatre, Dance and Performance’s recent performances of Oscar Wilde's “The Importance of Being Earnest” will have a decided advantage in appreciating Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic operetta “Patience,” playing through June 17 at the F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre in Rockville. 
The reason is that “Patience” is playing on the Victorian-era popularity of Aestheticism, an artistic movement associated with Oscar Wilde.  Known for his cheeky wit, Wilde once wrote that the proper aim of art really is “lying, (or) the telling of beautiful untrue things!”  
An awareness of this may help viewers of the Victorian Lyric Opera Company’s production of “Patience” understand the point that librettist W.S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan are making. 
The story, in which two poets court the milkmaid Patience, may seem a bit conventional, even dull, unless one is attuned to the social and aesthetic criticism Gilbert and Sullivan are making. Fortunately, the production itself is marvelously engaging.  The dialogue of “Patience” is witty in much the same that Wilde himself is. Rick Dupuy convincingly plays Reginald Bunthorne, an effete poet (modeled on Oscar Wilde) who is “shadowed by twenty love-sick maidens.” His rival, Archibald Grosvenor, played admirably by Kevin Schellhase, may be handsome but is even more arrogant.  “Oh, fatal perfection,” he says, referring to himself, “again you interpose between me and my happiness!”
Robin Steitz is a charming, rustic Patience with a received-pronunciation accent and a beautiful voice of impressive vocal range. The Act II patter songs (“So Go to Him and Say to Him” and “When I Go out of Door”)  are handled well by the other cast members, as are the musical pastiches of other composers (such as J.S. Bach) by the orchestra.   
The costuming and sets in “Patience” are both magnificent. Bunthorne’s maidens are arrayed in gorgeous gowns. Similarly, the lovely set looks like ancient Greek architecture overlooking the sea in “Sappho and Alcaeus” by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, a Pre-Raphaelite painting found at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore.     
Admittedly, some viewers of “Patience” may struggle a bit to see its relevance to our era. Felicity Ann Brown, the director of the Victorian Lyric Opera Company’s production of “Patience,” writes in the Playbill that an assumed knowledge of Wilde’s personality, wit, and works as well as a “convoluted, nonsensical plot” make “Patience” “difficult for any audience to follow.” An interesting side-note is that while “Patience” was written by Gilbert and Sullivan to lampoon Oscar Wilde and his “art for art’s sake” followers, the operetta, in fact, had the opposite effect. When “Patience” debuted, Gilbert and Sullivan were much better known in the U.S. than Oscar Wilde; people initially saw the work based on the strength of Gilbert and Sullivan’s earlier works. “Patience” served to introduce and popularize Wilde in America; indeed, Wilde’s well-publicized U.S. tour shadowed performances of “Patience” around the country.          
While parodying an “art for art’s sake” movement like Aestheticism may strike some today as passé, the satirizing of the public's preoccupation with fads remains as current as anything found in our modern plays. Indeed, if this production can be faulted for anything, it may be overly diligent in its following of Gilbert and Sullivan’s lines.  The production is outstanding, but very traditional, following word per word according to the original script. Topical Victorian terms and cultural references are addressed by a glossary in the playbill.  (A “puling” milk-maid, we are told, implies childishness, while  “emetical” means “nauseating,” etc.) This approach is historically accurate, but locks the production in time. Perhaps another approach would be to update the references, as is often done in Koko’s “Little List Song” in Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Mikado,” as Trump, Hillary, Bernie Sanders, and the like are skewered as belonging to a list of people who “never would be missed.”  
One wonders how “Patience” might be played in a production more aware of our own cultural fads and foolishnesses: Social media. Odd fashions.  Camera drones.  “50 Shades of Grey.”  Zombies walking dead on television screens.   Ubiquitous emojis.  And the overindulgence of other things that, as Gilbert and Sullivan would say, “never would be missed.”   To quote “Patience” a little loosely, perhaps one “ought to get a different, more topical marionette, and form a style on him.”
Last modified onThursday, 14 June 2018 15:39
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