Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, August, 1998

Coming home from the theatre late last night, after a long and exhausting day, the question entered my mind “Why do we bother writing new plays when there are so many good old ones?” That is a foolish question, of course. The real question is “Why don’t we stage the old ones more often?” It is easy to ask that question after seeing Roger Rees’s adaptation of “The Rivals” currently playing on the MainStage of the Williamstown Theatre Festival

Written in 1775 by Richard Brinsley Sheridan, “The Rivals” is a lightweight farce propelled to greatness by the memorable characters the author created. Rees has cast these characters with a fascinating mix of fine actors – young and old. While the production is not without the odd flaw here and there, it is nearly impossible not to be swept away in the fun of it all.

In brief – wealthy Captain Jack Absolute has wooed and won the equally wealthy Lydia Languish, despite the strenuous objections of her aunt, Mrs. Malaprop, by pretending to be a poor army Private named Beverly. Lydia is a headstrong teenager who spends her days reading trashy romance novels (yes, they had them in the 18th century too) and dreams of a romantic elopement without her aunt’s blessing. When she learns that Jack is not poor and Mrs. Malaprop and Jack’s father Sir Anthony Absolute arrange a marriage for the two, she loses interest.

But she still has no interest in the other two rivals for her affections – country squire Bob Acres, and mad Irishman Sir Lucius O’Trigger, the latter of whom is secretly being wooed by Mrs. Malaprop and not her niece as he believes. Both of them arrange to duel with Jack for her affections in the climax of the play.

The greatest tribute to Rees’s adaptation and direction of the show is that you really are not aware that you are sitting through a three hour show written 225 years ago. The show moves along quickly, and there is nothing about these ancestors of ours that is inaccessible or inscrutable to a modern audience. Young and old, they are all in love – or imagine themselves to be – and while the manner of courtship and the custom of arranged marriages has changed, the emotions which charge each character’s thoughts and actions are universal and ubiquitous.

Now there’s a sentence that Mrs. Malaprop could never get through. Is there a more delightful role for a “mature” actress in all the world? I don’t think so. And Dana Ivey is thoroughly delightful in the role. Her Mrs. Malaprop is a woman alive to the world, not removed from it.

It comes as no surprise that she wins the heart of Sir Anthony Absolute (Tom Bloom) in the end. He would be a great idiot if he didn’t fall for her. Ivey and Bloom are so accomplished and such a joy to watch that all those pretty young folks dashing around the stage seem superfluous when the older pair take the stage.

Speaking of age, one of the slightly annoying things about the production is that some players are not the right age for their roles. Deirdre Lovejoy is beautiful and vivacious as Lydia Languish, but she is not seventeen. Kate Burton, an attractive woman if ever there was one, is costumed and made up to look dowdy, which makes her character, Julia Melville’s, attachment to the obviously younger Mark McKinney as Mr. Faulkland seem odd. It is not hard for Burton to look young and beautiful if given half a chance. Costume designer Kaye Voyce, whose work is masterful over all, ought to be shot for putting Burton in a too-short skirt that appears to have been made from cheap K-Mart curtains.

The design choice that grated on me, however, was not Burton’s skirt, but Frances Aronson’s lighting. Every time a character left the stage or a new one entered, the lighting changed. Why? Lighting ought to be an invisible ally to the actors, director, and the set and costume designers, not a distraction. While there are effects Aronson achieves that are simply breathtaking, she quickly spoils them by changing them too soon and too often.

The set by Neil Panel, however, is great fun. Large, amusing backdrops and minimal furnishings shift the scenes smoothly from room to room and from location to location. Rees has given us a fife and drum corps to distract our attention from the quick scene changes.

In the style of the period there are three comic servants involved in the affairs of the main characters – Mr. Fetch (Rick Holmes), Lucy (Sandra Shipley) and David (Denis Holmes.) Once again age and experience win out over beauty. Rick Holmes is nice to look at and does a serviceable job as Fetch, but you really can’t take your eyes off of Shipley or Denis Holmes when they take the stage. I defy you not to laugh at their antics.

Among the younger actors, John Ellison Conlee, as country bumpkin Bob Acres, is a stand-out. When he first enters there literally seem to be acres and acres of him – acres of coat, mountains of untamable hair, an ungainly body set on ridiculously long legs. When he reemerges later in breeches of silk the color of French’s mustard, a powdered wig perched precariously on all that hair, and Louis XIV heels he is a sight for sore eyes.

I was less enthralled with Jake Weber as Jack Absolute. In fact I felt as if he was playing Jack Tripper from Three’s Company and had been dropped down in the wrong theatre. I was also put off by Michael Potts as Sir Lucius O’Trigger. I am a big fan of color-blind casting, but to have the only black person in the cast play a character that is essentially one big Irish ethnic joke, is confusing. Potts was also saddled with a costume that upstaged him and a bad Irish accent that made him sound more Jamaican than Irish.

I am not sure if this is Sheridan’s fault or Rees’s, but the characters and sub-plot enacted by Burton and McKinney as Julia and Faulkland seemed to be from another play. McKinney, an actor who has won major awards for his comedy work, was singularly unfunny in a role which should be a hoot. Faulkland is so trapped in analyzing and proving his love for Julia and hers for him that he almost loses her. Theirs is a much more modern love story which should play in delightful contrast to the more basic instincts portrayed by the rest of the characters.

If you are an absolute stickler for historical accuracy and seeing older plays performed as they were written, Rees’s adaptation may not be for you. He and the cast take many liberties to bring the play up to date for their audience, but I argue with the idea that our ancestors didn’t do exactly the same thing to keep their audiences awake and pacified for three hours.

The Rivals runs through August 15 on the Williamstown Theatre Festival MainStage. Call the box office 413-597-3400 after 11 AM for tickets and information.

copyright Gail M. Burns, 1998

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