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Berkshire Review

The Rivals

Nowadays a practicing lawyer with playwriting ambitions is usually advised to keep his day job and save his playwriting for his non-billable leisure hours. When Richard Brinsley Sheridan wrote his first play The Rivals in 1775 he did so because it seemed a more promising livelihood than the law. He was right.

The Rivals and even the more incisive second Sheridan play, School For Scandal, are not on a par with the literary brilliance of the comedies of another and later-born Irishman, Oscar Wilde. Yet, both have prospered for two centuries. because they're enlivened with the sort of juicy character portraits actors dream about.

Roger Rees's current revival for the Williamstown Theatre Festival confirms that you can spark up a somewhat rickety comedy with a few fresh theatrical tricks. Most of his directorial fillips work extremely well despite sometimes straining too hard for timeliness and laughs. I'll save my quibbles for later and focus first on this production's greatest strength -- the actors Mr. Rees has enlisted to play the characters whose names so deliciously encapsulate their key traits should lay to rest any doubts that this sort of classic comedy is best left to British actors.

Dana Ivey, who took some getting used to as Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie (see link at end) earlier in the season, seems born to be that hilarious abuser of the English language, Mrs. Malaprop. Some of the solecisms Ms. Ivey delivers with great flair and relish: If I reprehend anything in the world, it is the use of my oractular tongue and a nice derangement of epitaphs such as "Iliterate him, I say, quite from your mind" and "He is the very pineapple of politeness."

Tom Bloom is equally impressive as Sir Anthony Absolute. He bristles at the younger generation's rebellion against his need to dominate absolutely, blaming it all on teaching girls to read. And yet, though he declares that if he were to take another bride it would be one "who only knows letters and numbers to twenty", memories of a more romantic youth linger and contribute towards his being a well-rounded character and not a carricature. Jake Weber has enough dash and charm for both Ensign Beverly and Jack Absolute to offset the fact that he does not plumb his role quite as deeply as the actors representing the older generation. Deidre Lovejoy, (how's that for a restoration style metaphoric name?) nicely lets intelligence show through the heiress Lydia Languish's girlish romanticism. The rest of the cast is too large (11 speaking parts) to say more than that all take full advantage of the memorable characters written for them. Even the minor players, such as Denis Holmes doing uproarious double duty as David and Thomas, make major contributions.

For anyone unfamiliar with the ins and outs of the plot it is set in the resort town of Bath. Lydia Languish yearns for a romantic elopement rather than a more conventional marriage. That's why the wealthy Captain Absolute has wooed her in the guise of a poor ensign. Confusions pile on confusions as Mrs. Malaprop who happens to be Lydia's aunt and guardian threatens to disinherit her if she does not give up Ensign Beverly for Captain Absolute. As per the play's title there are also two other rivals -- a cowardly country squire, Bob Acres, (played with acres of flair by John Ellison Conlee), and an impecunious Irishman, Sir Lucius O'Trigger, (Michael Potts leaning a bit too heavily on the farcical trigger). To complicate matters further Lydia's maid Lucy (Sandra Shipley) delivers O'Trigger's notes to Mrs. Malaprop who thinks they are intended for her. A secondary romance involves Lydia's cousin Julia (Kate Burton) and her romantic opposite, Faulkland (Mark McKinney). It all ends with everyone arriving in the woods where Bob Acres has been persuaded by O'Trigger to challenge their rival, Absolute/Beverly, to a duel.

To get back to the production and the new wrinkles the director/adaptor has introduced. . .

Since the setting is the spa town of Bath, Rees has smartly made the play the current performance piece of a travelling theatre troupe. This play-within-play setup featuring nine actors and a four-person regimental band adds a festive air to the proceedings.

The addition of music is fun and actually has historic precedent. There was a musical version in London in1935 and a New York revival some years later which featured lyrics by Arthur Guiterman and music by Macklin Morrow. A new prologue by Eric Elice, while apt, also has the shortcoming of establishing a pattern for too much audience pandering in the interest of crumbling the mythical fourth wall said to separate actors and audience . The prologue's self-conscious references to Williamstown and Massachussets are familiar gimmicks and the actor-audience camaraderie at times reaches the point of being a case of hamming it up. Another major flaw is the director's failure to use a blue pencil to get rid of some of the moments when things seem to sag and drag, especially during the hour and a half long first act.

Neil Patel has erected a handsome proscenium, complete with a coat of arms and extra doors. His clever drop-down sets add a bright modern look that works well within the historic time frame. Thanks to costume designer Kaye Voyce, everyone is delectably and delightfully attired -- the outrageous excesses of the two rivals are particularly amusing.

Since The Rivals is best known for the character who added the term malapropism to our lexicon, it's worth concluding with this historic note: While Mrs. Malaprop is Sheridan's invention, she may have been suggested to him by a similar character named Mrs. Slipslop in Henry Fielding's1742 novel Joseph Fieldings -- described as a "mighty affecter of hard words." Shakespeare buffs will also find a kinship between both these ladies and Dogberry, the Constable of the Watch in Much Ado About Nothing.

Plays Mentioned In the Review
School For Scandal
Our related feature to the above: The Metaphors of Richard Brinsley Sheridan
The Glass Menagerie
Review of a revival of a play in the same genre: London Assurance

by Richard Brinsley Sheridan
Adapted and Directed by Roger Rees
With: Tom Bloom, Kate Burton, John Ellison Conlee, Denis Holmes, Rick Holmes, Dana Ivey, Deidre Lovejoy, Mark McKinney, Michael Potts, Sandra Shipley and Jake Weber
Sets:Neil Patel
Costumes: Kaye Voyce
Lights: Frances Aronson
Sound: Kurt B. Kellenberger
Williamstown Theatre Festival-- Adams Memorial Theatre
. 1000 Main Street, Williamstown, MA (413/597-3400)
web address
8/ 5/98 -8/16/98
opening 8/06/98
Reviewed 8/07/98 by Elyse Sommer

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