By Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Directed by Johnna Wright. A Blackbird Theatre Company production. At the Cultch's Historic Theatre on Wednesday, December 30. Continues until January 23
Love, money, language: The Rivals may be over 200 years old, but its concerns are still relevant—and very entertaining.
Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s first play revolves around Lydia Languish, a wealthy young heiress. Her aunt, Mrs. Malaprop, arranges with Sir Anthony Absolute to marry her to his son, Jack, but Lydia has ideas of her own: she is in love with a lowly ensign, Beverly, and plans to elope with him, thereby forfeiting her inheritance and ensuring that her husband loves her for something other than her money. Disguises and another suitor, the jolly Bob Acres, complicate the romance further. Meanwhile, Jack’s friend Faulkland wrestles with doubts about the love of his fiancée, Julia, and Mrs. Malaprop carries on a romantic correspondence with a visiting American, Lucius O’Trigger.
Plot complications drive plenty of the comedy in The Rivals, but its deliciously idiosyncratic characters and generous lashings of verbal wit are what make it a classic, and those features are successfully showcased in this production. Emma Slipp and Martin Happer bring a winning confidence to the roles of Lydia and Jack, and Kirk Smith is an affable Bob Acres. John Emmet Tracy’s performance as Faulkland is exquisitely detailed: his whole body writhes with the agony of his overthinking, in counterpoint to Luisa Jojic’s steadfastness and generosity as Julia, the play’s most sincere character. Jenny Wasko-Paterson is both dotty and canny as the servant characters, while Scott Bellis is a swaggering O’Trigger.
Gabrielle Rose makes the play’s most famous character, Mrs. Malaprop, vivid and colourful as she slaloms through the precarious terrain of verbal expression, describing Jack as “the very pineapple of politeness” or invoking discretion with “Female punctuation forbids me to say more.” Duncan Fraser’s understatement as the truculent and misogynistic Sir Anthony is an effective counterpoint. When Fraser lets loose, though, it’s comic gold: as Sir Anthony enumerates Lydia’s virtues to his son, his paroxysms of rapture threaten to send him to the hospital.
Director Johnna Wright underscores the hypocrisy or two-sidedness that thrums beneath the surface of almost every interaction: characters frequently address the audience directly, making us complicit in their charades. It’s a credit to both director and cast that Sheridan’s language feels contemporary, and the story is always clear. But the pacing lags a bit in the first act, and Sheila White’s lavish Edwardian costumes are the exception to the spareness—sometimes verging on lifelessness—that characterizes much of the design, including Alan Brodie’s lighting and Bruce Ruddell’s music. David Roberts’s cream-coloured set is handsome, but the projection panel at the back feels both anachronistic and underutilized.
Still, it’s a treat to see a classic so well-realized. This production’s successes are more than even Mrs. Malaprop could reprehend.