An 18th-century play skewering young love and parental expectations gets big laughs
Published: October 19, 2011
By Richard Brinsley Sheridan
At Center Stage through Oct. 30
If there’s anything more ridiculous than young people in love, it’s parents and guardians who try to interfere with them. But Richard Brinsley Sheridan does not choose sides; he makes merciless fun of them all in his play, The Rivals, now at Center Stage.
In an early scene, Lydia Languish (Zoe Winters) justifies her name by reclining languidly on a divan, her eyes glued to the latest romance novel, her puffy dress so thoroughly printed with pink flowers that she seems to have fallen into a garden. The 17-year-old girl is so addicted to romance that she has resolved to never marry a man approved by her aunt, Mrs. Malaprop (Kristine Nielsen), but to elope instead with a dashing young man without money. Her reputation in this regard is so well known that the eminently eligible Captain Jack Absolute (Manu Narayan) has chosen to disguise himself as the penniless Ensign Beverley in order to woo her.
Lydia may be foolish, but not nearly so foolish as Mrs. Malaprop, who brings in Jack’s oblivious father, Sir Anthony Absolute (David Margulies), to size up her daughter for marriage. When Lydia declares that she thought to make her own choice for a husband, Mrs. Malaprop begins to shake—her eyes rolling and the butterflies in her towering orange hairdo fluttering—and squeaks, “You thought, miss! I don’t know any business you have to think at all—thought does not become a young woman. But the point we would request of you is, that you will promise to forget this fellow—to illiterate him, I say, quite from your memory.”
Sheridan premiered this play in London in 1775, the same year the American Revolutionary War began, but romance-addled teenagers and domineering parents are as familiar today as they ever were. The playwright took no pains to shade his characters with nuanced realism; instead, he exaggerates at every turn. The aunt, for example, mangles not only logic but the English language as well—to the extent that her name gave birth to the word “malapropism.” Center Stage director David Schweizer doesn’t hold back either; he has encouraged his costumer David Burdick to overstate every piece of clothing and his excellent cast to amplify every gesture and peculiarity of speaking.
The result is a hilarious production of a famously funny play. It’s the first production since Irene Lewis left Center Stage as artistic director, now replaced by Kwame Kwei-Armah, and the show is refreshingly free of Lewis’ tics. There are no undergraduate intellectual conceits imposed on the material—no giant picture frames in the set design, no surrealist clowns or wandering minstrels added to the cast, no awkward shift of time and setting, no heavy-handed emphasis of underlying themes—just a straightforward engagement of the material. Even the program book has been liberated from those patronizing essays that condescend to make theater relevant to Baltimoreans; in their place are historical essays that actually contain useful information.
In The Rivals, the aristocrats may be helpless fools, but the servants are as savvy as they are knowledgeable. Mrs. Malaprop’s maid Lucy (Libya Pugh), for example, knows that Sir Lucius O’Trigger (Evan Zes) is in love with Lydia, but Lucy passes his letters on to Mrs. Malaprop, encouraging her to think she’s being wooed. Jack’s servant Fag (Marylander Danny Gavigan) is the one who figures out that Sir Anthony is trying to force Jack to marry Lydia, the girl he wants anyway. Meanwhile, Jack’s best friend Faulkland (Clifton Duncan) has already won the heart of Lydia’s cousin Julia (Caroline Hewitt), but he keeps discovering new doubts and new tests of her love. Meanwhile, Jack’s other friend Bob Acres (Jimmy Kieffer) keeps paying Lucy to deliver his love letters to Lydia as long as the maid keeps encouraging his chances.
This farce’s complicated plot is never hard to follow because each character is so vividly realized by a uniformly strong cast. But there are some standouts. As Faulkland, for example, Duncan is the ultimate self-doubting lover, a tall beanpole of a boy in gray tails and pantaloons, forever grabbing his knees in worry and then dashing off impulsively to sabotage his chances again. If Julia is too reserved, he’s convinced that she doesn’t care for him; if she declares her love, he’s convinced that she’s a brazen hussy, and when he worries, his voice starts piping like a fractured flute.
Nielsen is a delightful grotesque as Mrs. Malaprop, but Margulies matches her as Sir Anthony, even though he’s only half her height. Like Lord Farquaad in the Shrek movies, Sir Anthony tries to compensate for his compacted carriage with extra bluster, threatening to bludgeon his own son with a walking cane when Jack refuses to accept an arranged marriage. And yet, when Sir Anthony describes Lydia’s good looks to Jack, the father can’t restrain a lusty jig of joy. And as Sir Lucius, Zes creates a funny walk (legs well ahead of torso) and funny voice (pig snorts mixed with a carnival barker’s cries); he’s the most wonderfully exaggerated performer of all.
If Sheridan’s portrayal is at all representative of the time—with young people so self-defeating in their pursuit of romance and adults so clumsy in their arranging of marriages—it’s a wonder the human race didn’t die out in the 18th century. But somehow the animal instinct for coupling manages to survive all the customs invented to help it along, and true love triumphs in the final scene of The Rivals. We can appreciate it with much clearer eyes having laughed as it stumbled over the previous five acts.
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