The Rivals: Theater Review
Richard Brinsley Sheridan's first play, which gave the world the term "malapropism" in 1775, is staged in Culver City.
In the seaside town of Bath, it’s Beach Party 1775, where everyone wears layers of ornamental clothing, the course of love cannot be left to the chance of pheromones and everyone schemes to secure their fortunes and flummox their opponents. Calculating fop Captain Jack Absolute (Brian T. Finney), future heir to his uncle Sir Anthony Absolute (VJ Foster), knows that his paramour Lydia Languish (Rachel Clentworth), niece of Mrs. Malaprop (Patti Tippo), will have no truck with him if she realizes he stands to come into fortune, so he masquerades as a poor but earnest and honest soul. Captain Jack is himself unnerved when his uncle schemes to have him unconditionally consent to marry an heiress of his arrangement, until he discovers she is to be the very Lydia he is already wooing, and Jack must contrive to hoodwink all into what they wish most – notwithstanding their determinations to control the situations to their detriment.
Playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan essentially confined his writing to his twenties before occupying a Parliamentary seat for decades, but what a splendid facility he had for enduring wit and trenchant caricature. With all the period frippery and ornate language, it can be riskyassaying his sturdy comedies, and director David Schweitzer has deployed a double cast drawn from artistic director Tim Robbins’ company The Actors’ Gang in a bifurcated strategy, affecting a resolutely period style while eliciting numerous parallels to the cruel intentions of our own contemporary mores.
This can be disconcerting, particularly when the actors tend to address their speeches directly to the audience rather than one another, in what I can only presume is a reference to an older performing tradition, though not nearly so dismaying as to recognize that manipulative behavior, childish assertions of authority and rebellious reactions of petulance have such centuries-old roots. Sheridan rather makes the foibles of human nature feel intractably persistent, and that remains pointedly funny.
By contrast, his inspired creation of the vocabulary-abusing Mrs. Malaprop may have coined a new word and a venerable tradition of linguistic burlesque, but legions of tiresome repetition have eroded much of the hilarity from these original tropes. Ms. Tippo admirably limns a rounded characterization of graciously bumbling elan, but alas the laughs are no longer there. The large cast consistently captures the bumptious spirit, manages the tricky lines fluently, and musters flesh and blood out of what can easily lapse into cartoonish buffoonery. Foster’s Sir Anthony wallows in ugliness and emerges with some credible nobility – no mean task – and I especially relished the sputtery antics of Sir Lucious O’Trigger (Bob Turton), Captain Jack’s rival for Lydia’s hand, a backhanded gibe at Sheridan’s own dueling adversary for the woman with whom he would elope.
Venue: The Actors’ Gang, Culver City (runs through Nov. 17)
Cast: Patti Tippo, Brian T. Finney, VJ Foster, Rachel Clentworth, Suzanne Fagan, Molly O’Neill, Will McFadden, Simon Hanna, Chris Schultz, Pierre Adeli, Bob Turton
Alternate cast: Nick Huff, Pedro Shanahan, Jessica Silvetti, Alison James, Jessica Marie, Lolly Ward, Nathan Kornelis, Bob Turton, Nick Huff, Timothy Fannon, Steven M. Porter
Director: David Schweizer
Playwright: Richard Brinsley Sheridan
Set designer: Karyl Newman
Lighting designer: Stephanette Smith
Music: Ryan Rummery
Costume designer: Christina Wright