Editors' pick

The Rivals

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Editorial Review

Wonderfully Wiggy 'Rivals'
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 3, 2003; Page C01

For a good time, call 202-547-1122. Be warned, though: The pleasure awaiting you is of a thoroughly wholesome variety. Satisfaction's achieved thanks to an experienced team of professionals happy to service your need for an evening of innocent fun.

That it's a group activity, performed in public, only adds to the air of delight. Indeed, those responsible for the enjoyable acts occurring nightly at the Shakespeare Theatre (the box office number is above) may be having as splendid a time as you as they go through their exuberant paces in Richard Brinsley Sheridan's "The Rivals."

We tend to think of comic genius as a contemporary phenomenon, a safety valve developed by a culture to take the edge off complicated modern times. But the error of that myopic presumption is illuminated by Keith Baxter's sublime production, which merrily shows off the abundance of wit that Sheridan brought to the London stage of the late 1700s.

Sheridan wrote only a handful of plays -- his best-known farce may be "The School for Scandal" -- yet he's a pivotal figure in the progress of stage comedy. His plays seem both to lean on his theatrical forebears and to presage the advent of other writers. The attention to plot mechanics harks back to Ben Jonson, and the stylish ripostes suggest a template for another master of the immaculate comeback, his fellow Irishman Oscar Wilde. It's easy to imagine a young Wilde taking in Sheridan's Restoration comedy a century later and thinking, "Yup, I want to do that."

He would have been fortunate to have experienced a version of it as sumptuously appointed as Baxter's, a production with the luxe allure of a suite at the Ritz. From the opening moments, when two actors light candles in a pair of brass chandeliers, which are then raised to the ceiling, you get the feeling that you're going to be well taken care of. Simon Higlett's sets, with walls the color of buttermilk, are eye-filling and ingeniously elastic; a curtain built into the set hides the myriad changes of scene, from interiors of drawing rooms and boudoirs to a bucolic plain outside the well-to-do resort town of Bath, where the play takes place.

The costume designer, Robert Perdziola, is Higlett's match. The luscious wardrobe he has created completes the impression of a production that might have been dreamed up in the workshops of the Royal Shakespeare Company in its heyday 20 years ago. Perdziola drapes the young actresses gorgeously, in lavender, lime and teal gowns of silk organza; for the loopy, more mature Mrs. Malaprop, he has come up with something more ridiculously festive, a hilarious mass of ruffles and frills that makes the actress playing her, Nancy Robinette, look like nothing so much as a garden party canopy.

It's totally right for wacky Mrs. Malaprop, the society matron with a grasp of English vocabulary so bizarre that she leaves only dazed interlocutors in her wake. Enveloped in curls and fabric, Robinette portrays Malaprop as the self-satisfied reincarnation of Hermione Gingold. (The actress should have fallen to her knees with joy when she received the news of her ideal casting.) Dropping grammatical bombshells hither and yon -- even her mention of single words, such as "fluxions," is funny -- Robinette's Malaprop remains forever lustily oblivious to her idiocy, a perfectly adorable fool.

Malaprop is but one of the dozen or so characters, upstairs and downstairs in this nose-in-the-air comedy of manners, whose romantic lives get tossed into a dizzy salad of misdirected missives, assumed identities and mischievous plots. The unconventional courtship at the center of the story is that of Malaprop's niece Lydia Languish (Tessa Auberjonois) and Captain Jack Absolute (Hank Stratton), son of wealthy Sir Anthony (David Sabin). This being a very silly season in Bath, Lydia's fondest wish is for a husband without means. So Jack disguises himself as one.

Into the mix Sheridan throws a ludicrous rival, Bob Acres (Tom Story), a country bumpkin. In urbane comedy, there are worse things you can be than evil. You can be from the sticks.

These, and still others, all turn out to be plum roles under Baxter's expert stewardship; there isn't a sore thumb anywhere on the stage, a rarity in a classical production. The tendency, too, is to underline the broad comic strokes; as their names imply, they're written as caricatures. And though a couple of actors come close to pushing it too far, no one is overplaying his or her hand -- not yet.

You can glide your finger through the program's cast list and find lots of things to savor, from Noel True's exquisite Julia, friend of Lydia's, to Romain Fruge's appealing and well-spoken Faulkland, a suitor for Julia afflicted with a case of contrariness. Auberjonois projects the lovely, effete fickleness of a bored rich girl; "Heigh-ho," she cries repeatedly, investing the all-purpose phrase with a luxurious sense of entitlement. You sense from the start that she's a first-rate comedian.

Stratton fills the virile-leading-man profile commandingly, and Daniel Breaker, a find in last season's "Silent Woman," exhibits even more charm and presence in his less flashy turn here as Jack's valet, a character with the unfortunate moniker of Fag. Edward Gero, Floyd King and Jenna Sokolowski all excavate winning moments from the bedrock of their solid supporting roles. Story even makes an entertaining figure out of the jackass Acres; clown parts often happen to be the least funny in classical comedy, and Acres is no exception. Story enters at a fever pitch that you eventually adjust to and grow to like.

The best is saved here for last. Sabin plays Anthony Absolute as a gruff old bear who delights in nothing more than provocation. He seems happy when he has worked himself into a lather, and happier still when he can whip his son into the same. Sometimes Sir Anthony is portrayed as a lecher, but Sabin's performance is more roguish than sleazy. Nothing appears to give this Anthony more pleasure than to terrify Jack with the power he has over his future; in a very funny scene, Sabin describes the one-eyed, humpbacked woman to whom he just may hitch his son if he feels like it. It's an idle threat, of course; there's no doubting how much this Anthony loves his son.

It's a big and earthy performance, perhaps not the most technically agile in the production; Sabin's accent, for instance, is not as polished as those of many of his colleagues. Yet Sabin is the touchstone for Baxter's take on Sheridan: It's all in fun, a harmless jest.

When the ensemble gathers at evening's end for a jaunty little line dance, choreographed by Karma Camp, it neatly conjures the playful spirit of what has come before. Taking "The Rivals" any more seriously, in fact, would be as fruitless as trying to diagram Mrs. Malaprop's sentences. The lunacy is all. "Our retrospection," Robinette says at one point, "shall be all to the future." Precisely.

"The Rivals," by Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Directed by Keith Baxter. Lighting, Peter West; sound, Martin Desjardins; voice, Ellen O'Brien; fight consultant, Brad Waller. With Samuel Bednar Schachter, Edward Gero, Chris Cantwell, Tiffany Fillmore, Caleb Mayo, Timothy Sekk. Approximately 2 hours 40 minutes. Through Oct. 19 at Shakespeare Theatre, 450 Seventh St. NW. Call 202-547-1122 or visit www.shakespeare theatre.org.