5Q :: Chris Nollet on 19th century comic operasThrough Brian Matuszak’s Rubber Chicken outfit, Chris Nollet and Jill Hoffman have been busy entertaining Northland audiences with — and educating them about — the late-1800s comic stylings of Gilbert and Sullivan.
Sometimes a step back in time can prove to be quite fruitful. Through Brian Matuszak’s Rubber Chicken outfit, Chris Nollet and Jill Hoffman have been busy entertaining Northland audiences with — and educating them about — the late-1800s comic stylings of W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan.
The latest “G&S” comic opera Nollet and Hoffman have embraced is “Trial by Jury.” Considering how little we know about the time period and its inhabitants’ sense of humor, we approached Nollet in search of an easy-to-swallow history lesson:
Budgeteer: What drew you to “Trial by Jury”? I know you’ve been doing Gilbert and Sullivan comic operas for a number of years, but what in particular about this one do you appreciate?
Nollet: We’ve been trying to go through all of the operas eventually, and have talked about doing “Trial by Jury” a few times in the past, as it’s one of the funniest and most accessible G&S works. This year, our usual — and brilliant — music director, Mark Overland, wasn’t able to do the show, so we decided that a shorter piece like “Trial” would be less stressful for me to direct. What I particularly like about it is that it is the forerunner of all our courtroom comedies, from Monty Python’s courtroom sketches to “Night Court.”
How do you think “Trial by Jury” holds up to an American audience today, considering it was first staged in the late 1800s in London?
If anything, I think it is even more relevant to modern audiences than to Gilbert and Sullivan’s contemporaries. Back then, the idea of a woman taking a man to court because he had broken off their engagement was simply absurd. These days, I’d expect to see it three to four times a week on “Judge Judy.”
On that, did you ever toy with the idea of “Americanizing” or modernizing this play?
We’ve always tried to keep our plays true to the original, while bringing in a lot of energy, physical comedy and sight gags. Since the plaintiff’s name is Angelina, I briefly toyed with the idea of renaming the defendant Brad, but decided that was playing too fast and loose. There is one Marx Brothers joke inserted — rather lamely — into a pause in the action, but since the Marx Brothers were greatly inspired by Gilbert and Sullivan, I thought it was fair.
Because of its short running time, “Trial by Jury” has often been considered a companion play. Besides your education feature “How to Recognize a Gilbert and Sullivan Opera!” were there any other attempts to lengthen the evening?
We thought about doing some other short operetta, but decided that a “Best of G&S” opening act would be easier to stage, given our very short rehearsal schedule this time around. Since a typical Victorian evening of theater would have been three to three-and-a-half hours or so, we usually have had to abridge things in past productions. With a running time of 40 to 45 minutes, “Trial by Jury” works perfectly in one act.
Finally, if you were to stage “Trial by Jury” with well-known actors from Hollywood films, what would be your dream cast?
This is a tricky one for me, as I’m not very good at remembering celebrities. I might cast Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie as the defendant and plaintiff (see above). I think Leonardo DiCaprio might make a good counsel for the plaintiff. For the judge, I’d like to see somebody like John Houseman. The usher is perhaps the trickiest character to cast, as he’s constantly shouting to maintain order in the court. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson might be good, or James Earl Jones....
NEWS TO USE
Rubber Chicken Theater will stage the Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera “Trial by Jury” (and the educational featurette “How to Recognize a Gilbert and Sullivan Opera!”) at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 11-13 and at 2 p.m. Feb. 14 at Cloquet’s Encore Performing Arts Center and Gallery (2035 Highway 33 S.). Cost is $15 for adults and $12 for students and seniors.