Sinfonifest: Thespians take on Thespis

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ELLIE KURLANDER / THE FLAT HAT

Sinfonicron: the name you might have never heard before, but absolutely should. The completely student-run gift that keeps on giving is back with a COVID-19-friendly twist. Livestreamed on YouTube, the three-day festival began Friday, Jan. 29 and kicked off with guest speaker Dr. Josephene Lee and her presentation titled “The Japan of Pure Invention: Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado.” The next two days were filled with theatrical performances and musical showstoppers.

Every January since 1965, the Sinfonicron Light Opera Company has produced musicals and light operas for the College of William and Mary community. Many Sinfonicron members come from the three music fraternities on campus: Delta Omicron, Phi Mu Alpha, and Nu Kappa Epsilon. Members arrive back to campus — albeit virtually this year — two weeks prior to the start of the spring semester to rehearse, build sets and manage marketing, all while, as the website puts it, “…living and breathing Gilbert & Sullivan.”

Night two opened with a presentation by Ken Krantz ’77, a William and Mary Law and Sinfonicron alumnus. As a Gilbert and Sullivan novice, Krantz’s presentation provided some much-needed context for the evening’s performance which made my viewing of “Thespis: The God’s Grown Old” all the more enjoyable.

As the virtual curtain lifted on Act 1 and the actors appeared in their respective Zoom squares, audience members were immediately transported to a ruined temple on the summit of Mount Olympus. Apollo, played by Christian Wachter ’22, and Diana, played by Kate Bobulinski ’22 are first to appear, as they discuss their aversions to completing their daily godly duties. It is obvious by now that the aging gods’ relationships with the mortal world have deteriorated with time.

One of the indubitable scene stealers was Ciara Curtin, ’24, who played the god Mercury. As the god well-known for trickery, Mercury is quite the troublemaker throughout the show, and Curtin’s portrayal holds nothing back. As a freshman, I’m excited to see what more she contributes to Sinfonicron in the future.

The other stand-out performance comes from Maggie Sheridan ’22 who plays the titular role of Thespis. As the real-life father of drama in ancient Greece, Sheridan had big shoes to fill and that she did. The character’s self-obsessed attitude and constant use of the phrase “Don’t know ya!” lets us know that Thespis is in charge and she is not messing around.

Worlds collide as an acting troupe led by Thespis enjoys a picnic on Mount Olympus. The gods quickly seize an opportunity to take a much-needed vacation to the mortal realm. Thespis and Jupiter, played by Eamon Raftery-Sweeney ’23, make a deal which allows the acting troupe to take on the individual roles and powers of the gods and things go perfectly … or do they?

As I watched the remainder of the show, the chemistry between the cast truly began to shine. In the final scenes, the entire cast converges in one fantastical assembly. While there were many Zoom squares to pay attention to, each cast member never failed to perfectly embody their characters’ mannerisms: from Apollo constantly eating, to Mars, Ally Watkinson ’23, looking perpetually hungover and wielding a knife.

Each actor breathed unique life into their roles. While the play ended more abruptly than I would have liked, we only have Mr. Gilbert to blame for that. Fortunately, the final moments we did get with the cast were tongue-in-cheek, with a classic fourth wall break which criticizes us, the viewers, who seek to praise the work of “… some dated, mediocre, playwright, simply because they were important at their time …”

While Saturday’s performance of “Thespis” set a high bar, Sunday night’s “Gilbert & Sullivan Revue” exceeded my wildest expectations. The Revue serves as a deep dive into Gilbert and Sullivan’s body of work, highlighting some of their most beloved songs. Who better to host the evening’s festivities than the iconic duo themselves?

The scene is set as an intervention for the estranged partners, with each cast member showcasing why they work better as a team. The performers do not shy away from the blatant sexism the two theatre giants exhibited, but it was respectfully played for laughs, displaying exactly why you should never meet your heroes.

A total of 10 songs were showcased, but I could have stayed for two more hours listening to the angelic instrumentals and lyrical performances from the ensemble. Not a single performance dragged, and the audio was edited beautifully, which allowed listeners to hang on to every word.

Mattie Lambert ’24 and Evelyn Showalter ’22 kicked off the first performance of the night with their whimsical rendition of “Tripping Hither, Tripping Thither.” Less than 10 seconds into the performance, I was met with harmonious voices which can only be described as fairy-like, and I was hooked for the rest of the night.

While each singer did an exceptional job, there were two performances in particular from Sumié Yotsukura ’22 and Mary Shannon ’21 that gave me immediate goosebumps. Yotsukura pulled out all the stops in her rendition of “I Build Upon a Rock.” The forest setting, prop sword and powerful operatic voice commanded audience members’ attention.

Shannon’s performance of “Poor Wand’ring One” also strongly appealed to viewers’ auditory and visual senses. With the backdrop of a picturesque lake, Shannon proceeded to sing a song described by Gilbert and Sullivan as “tortuous” for all those who dare to sing it. Shannon took the challenge head on, and the payoff was flawless trills which terrify my vocal chords just thinking about them. The cherry on top of the Revue was the “Law & Order” sound effect used at the very end to signify the end of Gilbert and Sullivan’s partnership following the production of “The Grand Duke.”

By the end of the evening, I completely understood who Gilbert and Sullivan were and why their work graced the stages of theaters all around the world. More importantly, I received a firsthand glimpse into the immense talent of the College’s student body. For having only two weeks of virtual preparation, this weekend was chock-full of performances I thoroughly enjoyed. I’m excited to see what Sinfonicron has to offer again next year.