Richard Brinsley Sheridan came by his playwriting honestly; his father was an actor and theater manager and his mother was a playwright and novelist. So, writing for the stage was in his blood. Although The School for Scandal is perhaps his best-known work, he had written The Rivals by the tender age of 23, having himself already committed several of the lunacies described therein: love, marriage/elopement, and dueling for his lady love.
The Rivals matches School in its massive satire, the intensity with which its characters attend to their 18th Century duties; and it is known for the creation of the character who comes into her own in School, Mrs. Malaprop. In the current production of the play by Deep Dish Theater Company, director Charlie Steak of PlayMakers Repertory Company presents these silly people on a set even smaller than the usual wall-to-wall of Deep Dish’s storefront theater. Using flats expertly rearranged by a battery of cast and crew, Steak presents us everything from an upstairs, upper-class salon to the tree-lined glade wherein most of the cast have met to duel, and the rest have come to stop them.
Using the ever-popular theme of love gone awry, Sheridan pits man against woman, son against father and friend against friend before everything gets sorted out and there are engagements aplenty. Sheridan gave us an even dozen characters; and we are introduced to them servants first, principals next, and rivals third. In the resort town of Bath, we first meet Fag (Lucius Robinson), Captain Jack Absolute’s servant, as he hails Thomas (Chris Brown), the coachman of Jack’s father, Sir Anthony Absolute (Rick Lonon). Jack (Josh Long) and his servant have come to Bath at the behest of his father, who plans to put upon him a wife and estate, all at once. But Jack has a scheme of his own doing, to get a young Lady to grant him her hand by pretending to be much less than he really is. Scene 1 is designed to lay it all out for us.
The apple of Jack’s eye is Lydia Languish (Anne-Caitlin Donohue), who is under the stern eye of her aunt, Mrs. Malaprop (Nicole Farmer). Mrs. M has caught her corresponding with an unknown suitor known only as Ensign Beverly. This is the character Jack has designed to wrest Lydia away from Mrs. M. Lydia is intent on marrying for love; and had she known of Jack’s own wealth, she would have discarded him out-of-hand. But as a co-conspirator with Beverly, Lydia is in her element. She reveals these ticklish plans to both her maid, Lucy (Page Purgar), and her good friend, Julia (Angela Ray), in Scene 2, just before we get our first taste of Mrs. M.
Rivals come to light in Scene 3. Bob Acres (Curt Kirkoff) is a friend to Jack, and has lately become enamored of Julia. But Julia’s heart belongs to Faukland (Matthew Patterson), also a good friend to Jack, but having only just met Bob. Faukland is inept. His own doubts keep him from embracing his lady love, Julia; and Jack upbraids him for it. Bob reveals his own designs by discussing them with Jack in front of Faukland, and this is even more of a devilment to the poor man. Julia, for her part, is already Faukland’s for the asking; but that’s the trouble. His own foibles keep him from asking!
Bob and Faukland are our first pair of rivals. Our other pair are Jack himself, and a man who is the unknowing dupe of not one, but two intrigues. Sir Lucius O’Trigger (Nikolas Priest) is a hot-headed Irishman (the closest character in the play to Sheridan himself) who believes he is a suitor of Lydia Languish. He knows Jack only as Beverly, and calls himself the rival for Lydia’s affections. But he is victim not only of Jack’s ruse but of one by Mrs. Malaprop, as well. Lucius knows Lydia only through her letters to him, a correspondence long and long-winded; but he has been unknowingly corresponding with Mrs. Malaprop, instead. She has taken Lydia’s character to return Lucius’ letters in an effort to snag herself another husband. Since Lucius has never actually seen Lydia, he believes those letters (malapropisms and all, for he is not a literary man) to be those of a 17-year-old Lady of the Realm. Rounding out the cast is poor David (Robert Bloomer), servant to Bob Acres, who wishes for nothing more than the two of them to return to their carefree country days and forget this dangerous place and its silly people.
In this play, there is only one person who has any of her wits about her; and that is Julia. She is beset by her love’s ineptitudes, and wishes only that he would sweep her off her feet. Since he cannot, she is destitute. Everyone else in this show is a clown. Jack falls victim to his own scheme when he must meet the girl he is to marry—who turns out to be Lydia, arranged by Lady M. and his father. She immediately denies him for ruining her well-laid plans. Lydia wishes only to be with her “Beverly” and would denounce all her money to do so; but now that Jack and Beverly are the same, never! Caprice!
The dozen members of this ensemble work together to concoct some of the silliest games ever to traipse about a stage. Fine characters and not a bobble in one very complex script make for a truly enjoyable and hilarious evening. First Lady in a cast of peers must be Nicole Farmer as Lady M, who pulls off this paradoxical speech without skipping a beat. (It must be maddening to know the right word and use the wrong!) Truly undercover, Farmer uses the almost identical mask of the Wicked Witch of the West to completely eradicate her otherwise-immediately-identifiable features.
Matching her for the men is Sir Anthony, as Rick Lonon nearly drives himself to apoplexy in an attempt to match his wayward and headstrong son to a suitable lady. Anne-Caitlin Donohue is precious as Lydia, with perfectly air-headed intentions and a marvelously expressive face, which changes drastically in a nanosecond as she reveals first her outermost—and then innermost—feelings. This work is a true gem, and you’ll be giggling all the way home.
Deep Dish Theater Company presents The Rivals Thursday-Saturday, 22-24 and March 1-3 and 8-10, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, Feb. 25 and March 4, at 3 p.m.; and Wednesday, March 7, at 7:30 p.m. in the space beside Branching Out at the Dillard’s end of University Mall, at the intersection of Estes Drive and U.S. 15-501, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. $16 ($12 students and $14 seniors), except $7 on “Cheap Dish Night”on Feb. 22nd. 919/968-1515 or via etix @ the presenter's site. Note: There will be a post-play discussion following the show’s Feb. 22nd performance. Deep Dish Theater Company: http://www.deepdishtheater.org/current.htm.