Although it is set in Japan, The Mikado spoofs Victorian-era English society. In Gilbert and partner Arthur Sullivan's work, the son of the Mikado (the Japanese emperor) flees the city of Titipu to escape forced marriage to an elderly and unattractive courtier. In Titipu, disguised as a minstrel named Nanki-Poo, he falls in love with Yum Yum, a young maiden engaged to the Lord High Executioner, Koko. Meanwhile, the Mikado orders an execution to take place in Titipu. Nanki-Poo volunteers to be executed on the condition that he gets to marry Yum Yum so he can spend the end of his life in wedded bliss. Koko doesn't have the guts to carry it out, so he lets the young couple leave and lies to the emperor about the execution. Believing that his son is dead, the Mikado orders that Koko be killed, but Nanki-Poo and Yum Yum show up at the last minute. Everyone rejoices.
In a review of the original London production published on May 1, 1885, a critic for The Monthly Musical Record wrote that though the show is "nominally Japanese," its "allusions are more or less thinly-veiled sarcastic references to our native institutions and peculiarities." Modern audiences aren't likely to grasp the operetta's satire, but when the Civic Opera teams up with the Paul Mesner Puppets for a production at the Folly Theater (opening April 29), anyone with a sense of humor ought to be able to appreciate its pure goofiness. In fact, what once might have been sarcastic now seems simple and innocent.
In this case, that's partly thanks to the efforts of Kansas City artist and illustrator Thomas Sciacca, who designed the sets. And like Gilbert, Sciacca found inspiration in an unusual place.
Several levels of panels make up Sciacca's rendition of Titipu. A garden wall accompanied by trees and shrubbery lines the front of the stage. Farther upstage are more greenery, a bridge and several pagodas, all backed by the city wall. Scattered around the stage are props, including a Buddha statue, a birdhouse, a pink flamingo and the three "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil" monkeys. Sciacca has painted the landscape and buildings with soft, rounded edges; the lush oranges, golden yellows and sensuous pinks are luminous and inviting.
"I want these sets to glow with light," he says. "I want to give people a very, very warm environment that the audience will want to step into."
Sciacca looked at books about Japanese gardens and read about puppet theater. He watched a 1939 British film of The Mikado, with grandly scaled Technicolor sets. Ultimately, though, he found the most inspiration in a box of baby announcements from the 1960s.
"Literally, the innocence of these colors makes me think of baby announcements," he says. "You have a wonderful illustration of a stork carrying a baby, but it had these yellows, creams, pinks and violets. That's the connection that I made when I thought, What's the most innocent palette I can come up with? I thought of baby cards."
Previously, Sciacca created tiny colored pencil drawings of geometric shapes and landscapes on 4-inch-by-3-inch pieces of paper. A 40-year-old native of Queens, New York, Sciacca based much of his earlier work on nostalgic ideas about his childhood. (One piece, called "Tunnel of Love," showed a couple in a boat about to enter a heart-shaped tunnel; it was inspired by trips to Coney Island with his parents.) Mesner contacted Sciacca after seeing the artist's work in a one-person exhibition at Unity Temple last June. Though Sciacca had no experience designing sets, he ultimately translated his standard visual vocabulary of a soft palette and rounded shapes to huge wooden boards. "This is just an extension of what I've been doing all these years, only on a big scale," Sciacca says.
The Mikado is lighthearted and humorous, so Sciacca's decision to use warm colors makes sense. But Sciacca's emphasis on warmth, innocence and purity is inspired more by his own feelings than by anything in the operetta.
"It's been necessary over the years for me to maintain contact with the earlier aspects of my life, the simpler things before things got complicated or problematic," says Sciacca, who struggled with the death of his mother in 1995. "I had periods years ago with my work where I looked at dark things. I can do the dark, complicated stuff. But I try to keep things simple because I've known a decent amount of drama."
While he was working on The Mikado sets back in February, Sciacca started following the case of Carlie Brucia, an 11-year-old girl from Sarasota, Florida, who was abducted and murdered. A former resident of Sarasota, Sciacca was upset by the crime and decided to donate a portion of his income from the set design to a butterfly garden and educational fund that Brucia's school is creating in her honor. Sciacca found a contrast between the disturbing death of a child and the ideas he was trying to convey with his sets.
"Some things I can't communicate verbally easily," Sciacca explains. "The really big things that I feel and that I want to get across are going to be in pictures. They're going to be in color. I know that physiologically, when you look at warm colors you feel better. A good deal of it is subliminal. The audience will feel it."
The set's positive message is overt, but Sciacca's concentration on happiness isn't kitschy, like an episode of The Brady Bunch. The hot pink that he uses sparsely on some flowering bushes and in the window of one building is the deep color of Valentine's Day cards and lingerie sets. "I saw this pink at the paint store, and I thought it was a very erotic color. It's not XXX porno erotic, but there's something about it that is very passionate." Sciacca uses it to reference The Mikado's love story.
Sciacca got a crash course in the technical details of set design -- such as making sure his panels were the correct height so audience members seated in the Folly Theater's balcony wouldn't see the puppeteers. Mesner provided input from the puppeteers' points of view, making sure Sciacca designed enough legroom -- free of wires or set-support structures -- for the puppeteers to move around. And artist Christopher Leitch designed the puppets' costumes in a deeper palette than the hues Sciacca chose for the sets, allowing the puppets to better stand out.
He has painted each wooden panel with exterior satin house paint; though the boards are two-dimensional, he renders the scenes with convincing depth. He accomplishes this with a combination of techniques: To create the soft textures and forms, he places a small amount of paint on a dry brush and pats it onto the surface; he then lines each set piece with a thick edge of yellow-gold paint, using an optical illusion to convince viewers that the edge is turning.
"Each panel is a painting. It's not a set piece -- well, it is -- but I'm handling it the way I handle everything, which is with a good deal of scrutiny and care," he says. "They are paintings. They are art."