Director George Mount leaves no theatrical stone left unturned in his search for innovative ways to stage his rollicking take on Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Rivals. Even before the audience has settled into their seats, on stage, a hurried and hushed discussion takes place between two actors most notably upset. Suddenly they whisk away what appears to be an audience member engrossed in her program while making her way to her seat. She is unceremoniously handed a script and shoved backstage. The show must go on and we all need to do our part. Let the madness begin!
Sheridan steeps his work in the Comedy of Manners tradition that was nearly one hundred years old by 1775, the year his The Rivals appeared at the Covent Garden Theatre in London. The play joyfully satirizes a bevy of social pretensions that may have existed in King George III’s England. Class snobbery, a brutal misogyny, and faulty concepts of romantic ideals are all skewered by Sheridan’s skillful pen. Very few of the characters here emerge unscathed by the playwright’s wit, but what fun watching them receive their comeuppance!
Mount’s production emphasizes the highly theatrical nature of the work. A set of footlights has been set up downstage and a grand red main curtain has been put in place for this show. Servants scurry about moving set pieces and placing placards on easels that spell out where each scene is set. Most beguiling, many of the characters’ monologues are presented as if they were solo songs, complete with opening chords ringing out before the speech and a single spotlight aimed at the speaker. The production’s use of artificial elements is echoed by the paper-thin psychological depth of most of Sheridan’s characters.
The convoluted plot involves a young Lydia Languish (Alexandria J. Henderson) determined to eschew any moneyed suitor. She loves her romantic novels (even The Clan of the Cave Bear!) and her down and out beau, Beverly. Unbeknownst to her, Beverly is in fact the wealthy Captain Jack Absolute (Avery Clark) in disguise. Lydia’s aunt Mrs. Malaprop (Julie Briskman) and Jack’s father Sir Anthony (Bradford Farwell) are anxious to pair their heirs off. Meanwhile Lydia is being pursued by a clownish country bumpkin, Bob Acres (Lamar Legend) and a hot-blooded Irishman, Sir Lucius O’Trigger (Mike Dooly). Got it? Well it really doesn’t matter. Sheridan is much more concerned with poking fun at the absurd airs this assembly assumes.
As has been the case for some time now, Seattle Shakespeare peoples the stage with a wide range of remarkably talented actors. Henderson imbues her character with a charming modern spunk. Briskman delivers each of her wacky malapropisms with a sparkling twinkle in her eyes. In his work as the clownish Bob Acres, Legend does a jaw dropping 180-degree pivot from the outstanding portrayal of the stern Frederick Douglass that he brought to the Taproot Theatre last year. Clark does solid work as Jack Absolute, more or less providing the moral core for this frenzied crew of socialites. Farwell explores absolutely every part of his vocal range in hilariously bringing to life Jack’s disgruntled father.
As Lydia and Jack’s good friends, Julia (Jocelyn Maher) and Faulkland (Calder Jameson Shilling) stage some delightfully spirited arguments over the “right” way to act when you’re in love. Their final reconciliation provides one of the more touching moments of the evening.
In the latter parts of act two the play finally slows down enough from its Marx Brothers-like frenetic pace to seriously consider what actually constitutes the path to true love, as the show’s artificiality gives way to some solid emotions. It was as if the characters took their cue from Sir Lucias when he proclaims, “We must be serious now!”
Crystal Dawn Munkers does stellar work choreographing the joyful climatic rock song that wraps up the evening. Here, the modern sensibility Mount has bubbling beneath the surface of Sheridan’s work finally explodes out full throttle. The production reminds us that the folly of youthful love has no expiration date in our world.
The wonderfully entertaining The Rivals runs through February 2 at the Center Theatre, right in the middle of the Seattle Center. For more ticket information go to https://www.seattleshakespeare.org or call 206-733-8222.