SALT LAKE CITY — Powdered wigs piled high, faux beauty spots, and elegant manners are all staples of the eighteenth century and are rarely on better display than in Richard Sheridan’s comedy of manners, The Rivals. His plot borrows heavily from classic farcical tropes that date all the way back to the Greeks. False identities are assumed and mistaken. Clever servants charmingly outwit witless masters, and impetuous young lovers bristle against parents who just don’t understand true romance. Set in the traditional vacation town of Bath, the characters are all taken out of their usual life, and the dramatic stakes are built around negotiating reunions, first encounters, and duels of honor.
The large ensemble cast brings an impressive array of skills to the table. British accents run along with stylized vocal choices which, rather than becoming a recipe for poor diction, are understood loud and clear. The whole cast is gorgeous in their elaborate period makeup, wigs, and costumes, and their movement and postures have risen to the occasion beautifully. Benjamin Nevarez as the proud young lover, Faulkland, alternately saunters and sulks in his high heeled shoes, while Clare Elizabeth Vaughn as the crafty servant, Lucy, flirts to kill in her corset and pannier skirt. There are some missed opportunities for physical comedy by Payton Bowen in the role of Fag, who, while charming, doesn’t make full use of his physical precision. Two standout performances come from Conner Nelis Johnson as Sir Anthony Absolute and Emily Nash as Mrs. Malaprop. These two variously primp, preen, strut, and sputter around the stage as the clownish parent characters they are meant to be. Johnson has a particularly well-played tantrum scene that left me in stitches. Nash manages to give emotional depth and relevance to the character that is written to be little more than a vapid joke without losing any opportunity for farcical humor. Our primary set of young lovers, Lydia Languish (Savannah Moffat) and Cpt. Jack Absolute (Harrison Lind) are set in contrast to Faulkland and Julia Melville (Jessica Weyman). The first couple are too silly with romance to be serious in their love, while the second set seem too anxious about their love to be romantic. Moffat and Lind are compelling to watch individually, and they sparkle in their scenes together. Another subplot involving some country bumpkins seeking to mingle in more refined company is mostly unremarkable but for the panache displayed by Nathan Vaughn as Bob Acers and a pretty good Irish accent by Tom S. Roche.
My compliments to the whole cast on their skill in performing their character asides fully to the audience without slowing down the action. At 2 hours and 40 minutes including the intermission, this play cannot afford to drag its feet, and it doesn’t. The winding plot clips along merrily and kept me chuckling. As mentioned above, the gorgeous hair, makeup (Amanda French) and costumes (Heather Parsell Rogers) are characters unto themselves in this production. It would be worth the ticket price just to have a few more hours to closely examine the intricate details of texture, color design, and fabric. A simple but very effective fishbowl scene design (Rachel Harned and others) aids in highlighting the thematic interest in social gossip and graces.
Director Alexandra Harbold has made strong and insightful choices with staging, including the use of the stage crew. I also applaud her willingness to acknowledge and then lean into a modern audience’s sensibilities when confronting the messy issues of female agency and patriarchal abuse that are so rampant in classical theatre. Like so many plays (of every era), this one centers on challenges to social order and matters of hetero-normative romance. Rather than pretend that the poor treatment of women and the servant class are inconsequential as the intended butt of most every joke, this production grows in subtle awareness of the impact of this treatment. In the climactic scene true tender feeling is extended where there might have only been laughter. This awareness is touched on without becoming overly political or preachy and while staying true to the effervescent joy and farcical silliness of Sheridan’s story. With poetry in my head and a dance in my step, I left the theatre feeling refreshed and pleased to have enjoyed a night of such beauty and celebration.
[/box]The Rivals plays at the Babcock Theatre in the Pioneer Memorial Theatre on the campus of the University of Utah. The show plays April 5-14 Thursday-Sundays at 7:30 PM with two matinees at 2 PM. Tickets are $15-$18 and $8.50 for non-U of U students. For more information, visit their website.[/box]