'Patience' is one for the ages

Audiences are whisked away to the streets of 1880s England, with a modern Israeli twist.

This week, as the curtain rises at the Hirsch Theater downtown, the Jerusalem Gilbert and Sullivan Society will whisk audiences away to the streets of 1880s England, with a modern Israeli twist. From the group that brought the city The Mikado, The Pirates of Penzance, Iolanthe and HMS Pinafore comes Patience, an opera with a traditional love triangle premise and a very nontraditional technique. Tracing the first love experiences of confused and innocent Patience, a village milkmaid, W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan's 1881 show grounds its story in the English esthetic movement of the time, an age when artists and writers like Oscar Wilde were adored and nearly worshipped by the public. With quick wit and catchy music, Gilbert and Sullivan satirized this moment in history as an earnest and endlessly funny testament to the strength of meaningless fads. Although it seems to refer to such a specific period in time, stage director Robert Binder insists that the show's relevance has not subsided. Working alongside musical director Paul Sarter and choreographer Arlene Chertoff, Binder believes that he has produced a show that a modern audience can continue to appreciate. "Patience really highlights the obsession that we have with running after avant garde artists and portraying works of art and theater as the 'in' thing. As quickly as it becomes 'in,' it's 'out,'" he says. "Groupies still unthinkingly take up the latest craze," Binder argues, just like the play's throng of young maidens waver en masse between devotion for the pompous and self-adoring "fleshly poet" Reginald Bunthorne, and the more soft-spoken and boyish "idyllic poet" Archibald Grosvenor, all the while overlooking their engagements to a troop of Dragoon Guards from the year before. "Like with Elvis, Michael Jackson, the Beatles or whatever is big today, all of these are very ephemeral. They come and go in a flash." The short skit featuring the authors that Binder chose to include before the first act of the play affirms this reality. A "fickle public only needs a new poseur," the acted roles of Gilbert and Sullivan joke to one another in the skit. "The brilliance of Gilbert and Sullivan is that they portray and parody human foibles that are with us in every generation," Binder continues. Here in Jerusalem, his words ring particularly true, and his vision informs a play that is as much about parodying 1880s English society as it is about stressing the flaws and possibilities of our own. This is the case even down to the makeup of Binder's cast, which is, in a sense, fairly representative of the makeup of Jewish Jerusalem. The show is comprised of "an eclectic group with people of very differing backgrounds," he explains, "ranging from Israeli-born to foreign born to observant to non-religious to old to young to fat to thin - all kinds of wonderful people with a common goal." In the show, teenage boys and older men march side by side in the same red uniforms as members of the Dragoon Guards, and orchestra members play next to one another, whispering among themselves in English that is tinted with every accent imaginable. Some men's heads flash kippot, and others' do not. For the cast and crew of Patience, the theater functions as a common space, where people from groups in Jerusalem society that rarely work in total cooperation accomplish a task as one united ensemble. Cast member Mona Liss agrees. "We have worked together for five months, and we all get along. People who come to our productions say, 'You know, it looks like you guys are really enjoying yourselves.' You don't see that many places where people so different are working together, especially nowadays with all of the conflict here over religion." The cast and crew members, she says, function not only as a community theater but as a community themselves. "This is what makes our group unique." Putting on Gilbert and Sullivan in Jerusalem, Binder has also molded parts of his production to suggest an added Israeli feel. Although he is keeping mum on specific details, he has remarked that certain directorial decisions make the play more culturally relevant to a Jerusalem audience. And his final word to prospective audience members? "It is always helpful to read the libretto before seeing any opera," Binder explains. "Patience, in particular, employs a very high level of language. The words come so fast and so thick." Patience runs through Thursday, March 22 at the Hirsch Theater at Beit Shmuel, Mercaz Shimson. For more information and to order tickets, call 620-3455 or visit the Society's Web site at www.gands.co.il/current.html.