Monday, December 10, 2007

Sunday Afternoon Viewing: The Mikado

Partially to clear my head from the seasonal onslaught of kid-oriented shitertainment and partially because we’re big G & S fans around my house, I took 2/3’s of the progeny to the Harvey-Rad student production of The Mikado, which turned out to be fun on multiple levels. Like almost all student productions, the performances were uneven. Some of the kids were a touch overmatched by the demanding pacing of the G&S songs, others were fantastic. Brian Polk's Ko-ko (Aka, The Lord High Executioner) is probably on his way to a professional career somewhere. But who cares? The enthusiasm and effort—as well the charmingly intimate Agassiz theater--more than made up for the occasional lack of polish, particularly in our contemporary entertainment context of lots of overproduced junk.

Like all trips back into time, this one called into high relief what my very rich entertainment diet has been lacking lately, which I might call a little old-fashioned spectacle. An orchestra pit, kettle drums!, costumes, make-up. If you think your kids are too jaded by Playstation to enjoy a theatrical production that doesn’t involve people in oversized animal costumes, you might be surprised to watch them react to a old-fashioned lighting-design. My four-year old was fixated on how the lighting transformed the stage from morning to night.

Which reminded me of one of things I’ve always found weak about Steven Johnson’s Everything Bad is Good for You. While I agree with a lot of his argument (e.g., television shows have gotten more complex, videogames are an under-valued medium), and the way he challenges a lot of assumptions about “good” and “bad” media experiences, it seems to me that he also lets some of his own key assumptions go unexamined. Most relevant here is the assumption that greater complexity or more intense stimulation leads to a better (more engaging, more enriching, more challenging, more fun) experience.

While it’s certainly true that great video games like Halo or a breakthrough serial television show like The Sopranos forces you to pay attention to a complex array of stimuli, it also distracts you from other fun aesthetic experiences which value emotional sensitivity over sensory stimulation, e.g., watching the characters react to one anothers' performances onstage. Don’t get me wrong, I like them all: Halo, The Sopranos and The Mikado. But a trip to a student production of Gilbert & Sullivan is a nice reminder that there is more than one way to engage the viewer of any age, no matter how many video games they play.

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