In 1884, when Gilbert and Sullivan created “Princess Ida or Castle Adamant,” women's education was a new and controversial subject, Darwinian evolution was yet to be recognized as a scientific consensus and the term “feminism” had not yet come to represent the movement toward women’s rights. At that point in history — the height of the Victorian era — these topics were timely and easy to satirize.
In our modern cultural lexicon, however, these issues are no more debatable than they are satirize-able. Women’s education has been accepted and codified as a necessary aspect of secondary education. Debates about Darwinism have moved from the parlour rooms of the upper classes to the textbooks of our youth. Feminism has moved from fights for equal rights in marriage and betrothal to equal pay at work and equal treatment in the workplace.
“Princess Ida” is thus a relic of history, a window into a forgotten culture of the past, a means of understanding the controversies of the Victorian era and the questions that occupied Victorian society. It is the story of a young princess’s futile struggle to avoid her arranged marriage and continue her work at a university for women. The princess’s husband comes to find her at the university, and yet, the princess remains defiant, sparking a battle between the university students and her husband’s army. The story ends with the princess accepting her obligation to marry and serve her husband as his wife.
The University of Michigan Gilbert and Sullivan Society’s performance of this work was quite stunning. Alexandra Kzeski (Princess Ida), Chris Kendall (Prince Hilarion) and Benjamin Powell (King Hildebrand) delivered magnificent vocal performances while the arresting acting and comedic skills of Philip Rhodes (King Gama), Sounak Raj Das (Cyril) and Patrick Takata (Florian) were on display throughout the performance. Kzeski, in particular, possessed an absolutely spectacular upper range.
Beginning with “God Save the Queen,” the production followed the arch of a typical Gilbert and Sullivan work with serious political and social themes being interrupted by brief moments of comedy. The soldiers from the princess’s court, for example, broke up an otherwise tense scene as the princess decides to fight her future husband to avoid their marriage. The prince and his friends also deliver a much-needed comedic distraction toward the end of the first act as they don women’s attire and enter the princess’s school for women.
The production also benefited from an entirely acoustic sound design and unique staging as cast members walked onto the stage from the floor. The left aisle was in almost constant use throughout the entire first act, contributing to the intimacy of the production.
The best moments in the show were the ensemble numbers. With extremely engaging sets and vibrant Victorian-era costumes, the full ensemble was magnifying. The opening act, with the king and the prince waiting to see the princess and her family, fit the full ensemble particularly well, as did the final scene — when the princess decides to surrender and marry the prince. The female cast was also quite captivating, particularly during the preparations for battle: This heavily choreographed number captured the feelings of fear that the women faced as they prepared to defend their university and the princess from the prince’s army.
If this production fell short on any account, it was the authenticity of the performance. Scenes satirizing women’s education and feminism, for example, were followed almost to a fault — most of these scenes failed to deliver the comedic effect that they no doubt had at their premiere. The audience was left to wonder whether they should, in fact, be laughing or whether it was inappropriate to laugh at (what is now considered to be) misogynistic viewpoints. Jokes about women’s education and women having the right to determine their future were quite uncomfortable in this regard. While the strong comedic and vocal performances of the cast did distract from these moments, they were definitely present under the surface.
While not the fault of this particular production, the ending was also unsatisfying and slightly uncomfortable. After determining that all the other women have abandoned her in her fight against the prince’s army, the princess quickly decides to surrender and marry the prince. The princess’s sudden surrender and the story’s sudden ending seemed to raise many more questions than they answer. Is this a collapse of feminism or merely a realistic admission of vulnerability in the face of a patriarchal society? Does the princess really love the prince, or is she merely accepting her fate? Does the princess surrender out of fear of harm or out of love for her family as the prince threatens her with her families lives?
In the long run, this production does what any good production should do: It raises questions about our society and about Victorian society. These questions seem particularly relevant in our current cultural climate, with the Women’s March in January drawing millions of marchers worldwide to call attention to women’s right, and the #MeToo movement continuing to draw attention to sexual assault and harassment throughout the country. Though it does not provide many answers, this production forces many timely and important questions upon the audience. And at the end of the day, what more can one ask of theater?