Actor Rick DuPuy has been in many Gilbert & Sullivan productions through the years — including “Patience,” the 1881 two-part comic opera that satirizes the 1870s English aesthetic movement and focuses on two rival poets.
The previous times he was a “Patience” cast member, he was in the chorus of Victorian Lyric Opera Company (VLOC) and Washington Savoyards performances. But he always thought one of the lead characters — Reginald Bunthorne, an over-the-top dramatic poet — would be a fun part to play.
Now DuPuy is getting his chance to slip into Bunthorne’s shoes in VLOC’s fully staged, live orchestra performance of “Patience” on stage from June 8 through 17 at the F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre in Rockville. “The poetry he writes and the way he expresses himself is very over the top, so I get to have a lot of fun doing that,” the actor said.
Most of the characters onstage do not see through Bunthorne. They idolize him and consider his poetry brilliant. “Oftentimes as an actor, you have to walk a line in terms of how you can be dramatic enough to interest the audience, but not so dramatic as to be ridiculous,” DuPuy said. “Well, here, of course, I have to be so dramatic as to be ridiculous. It’s great to have that license to go over the top and be as dramatic as possible.”
DuPuy was introduced to Gilbert & Sullivan at age 7 when his parents took him to see a touring production of “H.M.S. Pinafore” at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The performance “knocked my socks off,” he recalled, even leading to his parents creating a Sir Joseph Porter Halloween costume for him that year. Several years later, DuPuy got to play the role of Porter, that comic opera’s Lord of the Admiralty, during a young artists production of the show.
While some may find the 1800s dialogue troublesome, DuPuy, who has done about a dozen shows with VLOC, feels at home with the text. “I always find it a lot tougher to play a modern character,” he said. “I grew up reading lots of old literature. I’ve seen lots of old plays. I’ve seen lots of Gilbert & Sullivan shows and I’ve been in all the Gilbert & Sullivan shows over the years. …For me, this (show is) an old friend. Gilbert & Sullivan are old friends.”
VLOC is coming into its 40th year and this is the company’s sixth production of “Patience,” with its last one performed in 2008. Felicity Ann Brown is familiar with the show, having served as choreographer and stage manager for the 2008 production. Now she has stepped into the director’s chair. She knows the plot may be hard for a modern audience to understand, but “I felt a duty to help shepherd it and make it approachable.”
That does not mean changing any of the dialogue. “What I’ve tried to do is focus the show more on identity,” Brown said. “There are a lot of characters searching for their identity within this world — trying to figure out who they are, how they relate to other people.”
For example, Bunthorne loves the popularity of being followed, but is faking his poetic ability. Patience, a working-class dairymaid, has no idea what love is, but thinks it is her duty to figure it out. Lady Jane is afraid of being alone, not sure how life is going to pan out, but is realizing her options are becoming more limited as she ages.
Many of the women in the script are ingenues and may be seen as shallow. Brown noted that Bunthorne talks down to Patience, calling her a little girl and tells her how she can win him because he is a great prize. Brown felt this was inappropriate in the #MeToo era and changed the traditional delivery of some lines to a haughtier tone. “I tried to give Patience a little bit more power than she was originally written for and make Bunthorne a little more out of his element than in control of the situation,” she explained.
Robin Steitz makes her VLOC debut as Patience. “I think (the show) is just hilarious,” she said. “It’s interesting because I think Patience is one of those people who is funny without trying to be. She is very earnest. Humor comes from how earnest and honest she is. She’s not trying to be anything. It just comes out as hilarious. That is really fun. I don’t have to overact to make the humor come across. It is written into who she is.”
Brown hopes that audiences take way a love — or a renewed love — of Gilbert & Sullivan. “‘Patience’ isn’t done as often,” she said, “whereas people might know every single word by heart of (Gilbert & Sullivan’s other works like) ‘Pirates of Penzance,’ ‘Mikado’ or ‘Pinafore.’ This is one where people say ‘Oh! I forgot about that song!'”
The Victorian Lyric Opera Company will present Gilbert & Sullivan’s “Patience” at 8 p.m. June 8, 9, 15 and 16 and at 2 p.m. June 10 and 17 at the F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre, 603 Edmonston Drive, Rockville. Tickets are $28, $24 for ages 65+ and $20 for students. Opening night special ticket price is $14. The June 10 show will include a pre-show backstage tour and a post-show Q&A session. Call 240-314-8690 or visit www.vloc.org.