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|A CurtainUp Review
By Carolyn Balducci
Sheridan's own youthful ventures -- an elopement, two near-fatal duels and an estrangement from his father over his rash behavior -- form the autobiographical springboard for The Rivals which he wrote at age 22. Whatever personal or political themes might be subliminally woven into the play, ever since The Rivals premiered in January 1775 it has been regarded as one of the best plays in the English canon.
Indeed, like many comedies from The Menaechmi to The Fantasticks, The Rivals includes a conundrum of seemingly unnecessary disguises, misunderstandings and misinformation that threaten to thwart or confound lovers. It takes this one step further, however, by showing how being in love thrusts lovers into such a dither that they can hardly recognize themselves. No wonder then, that Fag, (Edward Seamon) a manservant, would explain that "Love. . . has been a masquerader ever since the days of Jupiter."
As the story unfolds, the overly romantic Lydia Languish (Rachel Botchan) is fixated on the idea of eloping with a penniless man. Since she is an intelligent and well-read girl, she's quite right to want reassurance that she is loved for herself and not her vast inheritance. To transform himself Lydia's ideal love object, dashing Captain Jack Absolute (Sean McNall), has disguised himself as plain old Ensign Beverley and feeds her fantasy about running away, even though that will mean forfeiting her fortune. As an officer and gentleman, Jack knows there is no romance in poverty, so he is merely trying to buy time with this charade. In any event, he is genuinely crazy about Lydia and her fortune is just a sweetener to the deal.
While Lydia plans her getaway outfit and plots the escape route, one of Jack's letters is intercepted and the relationship is discovered. Lydia's aunt, Mrs. Malaprop, hastily negotiates a marriage for Lydia with Sir Anthony Absolute (Robert Hock) with his son, Captain Jack Absolute, a.k.a. Ensign Beverley. Two other wannabe suitors for Lydia's hand in marriage turn up to claim her, like explorers planting a flag on virgin soil. One is Jack's buddy from back home, the rustic Bob Acres (Dominic Cuskern). The other is the pugnacious fortune-hunting Irish baronet, Sir Lucius O'Trigger (Dan Daily). Malaprop has been writing love letters to O'Trigger under a pseudonym but her clever and greedy maid, Lucy (Celeste Ciulla) has led him to believe the sender is none other than the nubile Lydia. When Lydia discovers that she is being contracted to marry her sweetheart, she sends Jack packing.
Naturally, with authoritarian fathers, conniving servants, squabbling lovers, phantom rivals and aliases abounding, the screwball events lead to a six-way duel among Acres vs. his rival "Beverley," Jack vs. Sir Lucius, and Faulkland vs. anyone who comes down the pike. Disaster is averted when Sir Anthony, Malaprop, Julia and Lydia, as well as Fag and David (Patrick Toon) arrive in the nick of time.
With this outstanding production, the Pearl Repertory upholds its twenty-year tradition of virtually flawless performances and excellent staging of classic theater. Each member of the cast deserves praise for his or her effortless and precise rendering of comic lines and subtle gestures. Special praise is due the effervescent interpretation of scenes between the neurotic Faulkland (Christopher Moore) and his fiercely rational fiancée Julia Melville (Eunice Wong). In their skillful verbal sparring, the gracious Ms. Wong and the Seinfeldian Mr. Moore transcend the somewhat preachy material and manage to hold up a mirror to our own foolishness and insecurities.
There were few flaws in the performance, but the spartan stage design seemed raw. The handsome costumes appeared to be washed out by unimaginative and static lighting. There were few props to break the monotony apart from some odd chairs that were never sat on, as if they had to be returned to Bloomingdale's for credit. Poor Lydia Languish had to perch on a stiff little bench, instead of reclining on a chaise-lounge as befits her seductive-sounding name. Another observation concerning the theater itself was the need for better air circulation. Overall, none of these minor issues distracted from such an excellent performance. The Rivals is a must see!
Editor's Note: Sheridan's play has enjoyed many productions and this is the third time we've had a chance to write about it at CurtainUp.
The Rivals in the Berkshires )
The Rivals as a Concert Staging
Mendes at the Donmar
At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2003 Movie and Video Guide
Ridiculous!The Theatrical Life & Times of Charles Ludlam
Somewhere For Me, a Biography of Richard Rodgers
The New York Times Book of Broadway: On the Aisle for the Unforgettable Plays of the Last Century
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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