There is a stark difference between performing on a live-streamed Zoom call and in the Agassiz Theater. But undeterred by the circumstances, the Harvard-Radcliffe Gilbert and Sullivan Players are using the unusual setting to stage a return to semi-normalcy with a production of the one-act comic opera “Cox and Box; or, The Long-Lost Brothers,” which ran April 29 to May 8.
While the embrace of an all-virtual setting allowed the group to perform safely during the remote semester, it also necessitated far-reaching changes. Typically, HRG&SP sticks to shows by both W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, a Victorian-era British duo who created 14 full-length comic operas together. However, after producing one of their typical operas proved infeasible during the previous semester, the group started looking for an alternative. “We decided on ‘Cox and Box’ mostly because it's short, it's part of the canon, and it's fairly easy to do virtually because the scenes have so few people in them,” Ria Dhull ’23, the group’s president, said.
With music by Sullivan but without the involvement of Gilbert, the show tells the story of two men: James John Cox (William P. Evans ’21), a hatter who works all day, and John James Box (Taylor Kruse ’23), a printer who works all night. Unbeknownst to each other, they share lodgings, having fallen prey to a scheme by their landlord to get double rent for a single room. After an unexpected meeting, the two discover they have more in common than the bed they sleep in, which results in much hilarious argument.
The production, which was stage directed by Samuel F. Dvorak ’23 and music directed by Veronica F. Leahy ’23, marks the first time since the Fall 2019 premiere of “H.M.S. Pinafore” that HRG&SP has tackled a full opera. According to Dhull, the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic forced the total cancellation of the company’s show last spring, and last semester they showed a collection of pre-recorded numbers from “Ruddigore.”
One potential downside of the choice could have been the opera’s small cast. HRG&SP normally casts 15 to 20 people, whereas “Cox and Box” has only three characters. Fortunately, the group turned the problem into an opportunity, deciding to give their imaginations free rein and add additional scenes written in the style of Gilbert and Sullivan, featuring more characters invented by Dvorak and Dhull. “This is definitely the most creative we've been,” Evans, also a member of the board of directors, said. “I think that's a testament to what we wanted to do with the show: to make it be more inclusive and have more people.” Thanks to the change, the final cast involved 20 people.
This year was bound to differ a lot from other experiences in the 65-year history of HRG&SP, and the group came to “Cox and Box” fully aware of how much harder working remotely can be. “It's definitely been super challenging,” Leahy said. But she was quick to point out that experience helped the team to overcome the obstacles posed by the pandemic. “We are in the third semester of doing these virtual things,” she said. “Some of us were even doing virtual theater over the summer. I think a lot of us have started to realize what works and what doesn't.”
For Dvorak, the unusual circumstances “open[ed] up some exciting possibilities” despite their limitations. Because the group didn’t need to rely on the confines of a stage, it could experiment with pre-recorded video clips. “It's almost like we have 10 music videos for each of the 10 musical numbers,” Dvorak said. “They are like clips out of a movie musical. So I think that's one part of ‘Cox and Box’ that's also unique in that it uses both live and pre-recorded and tries to mesh them together seamlessly.”
The online format stimulated creativity, but it was still a huge hindrance, especially when it came to music. Rather than having people perform live, the group was forced to individually pre-record singers and musicians. “It's a very particular and tricky situation,” Leahy explained. “Because of Zoom delay, it's impossible for two people to be able to play or sing simultaneously.”
Whatever the challenges the team might have faced, to them, their efforts were worth it. “It certainly has been the highlight of a very, very dark and challenging year, and it's definitely brought a lot of joy in a gloomy time,” Dvorak said. Now, the Harvard-Radcliffe Gilbert and Sullivan Players hope to bring the same joy to their audiences.
—Staff writer Zachary J. Lech can be reached at email@example.com.