Fans of theater, literature, and language should rush to The Pearl Theatre Company for the rare treat of a wonderfully funny and authentic production of Richard Brinsley Sheridan's classic comedy of manners The Rivals. Directed with a sure hand by Hal Brooks and filled with delightful performances, the production rivals any big-budget musical now competing for your attention.
Literary critics often call The Rivals, first performed in 1775, a comedy of manners, but its characters are rarely the "pineapple of politeness," as its famous character Mrs. Malaprop might say. Of course, the word manners here refers to stuffy social customs, and Sheridan, in this, his first play, proved he was a trenchant satirist of those customs and of the upper class that practiced them. Hal Brooks has tapped into Sheridan's humor to pull out not just the satire but the knee-slapping comedy of this nutty love story.
Drama queen Lydia Languish (Jessica Love) has several men vying for her affections, but she wants a man who's poor and willing to elope with her, just like the men in the romantic, sentimental novels she reads by the dozen. Ensign Beverley fits the bill nicely, only Beverley isn't really poor, or an ensign, or even a Beverley. He's really the well-heeled Captain Jack Absolute (Cary Donaldson) pretending to be a low-paid officer in order to win Lydia's affections. Meanwhile, the unpolished country squire Bob Acres (a brilliant Chris Mixon) thinks he'd make a fine match for Lydia. To complicate things further, Lucius O'Trigger (Sean McNall) has been receiving love letters from someone he believes to be Lydia but who is really the language-mangling Mrs. Malaprop (Carol Schultz). The aptly named O'Trigger is ready to cock a pistol in a duel to win Lydia's affections if need be.
Dan Daily gets thunderous laughs as Jack's father, the domineering Sir Anthony Absolute, who's fine with his son doing whatever he wants as long as he obeys his father completely. Rachel Botchan delights as Lydia's more level-headed cousin Julia, who falls in love with the inconsolable, ever-doubting Faulkland, played with histrionic verve by Brad Heberlee.
Jo Winiarski's set, with its receding perspective, replicates the kind of scenery audiences would have seen in Sheridan's day: Several wing-flats, or coulisses, project onto the stage at fixed intervals to create the illusion of a long salon that extends into the distance. The modest chandeliers and footlights complete the look of an 18th-century stage. Winiarski also craftily gives the wing-flats a cartoonish quality with two-dimensional depictions of columns, an effect that sits nicely with the play's satirical tone.
Brooks instills in his actors this sensibility as well, accentuated by Sam Flemming's brightly colored costumes and Gerard Kelly's stupendous wigs (with an abundance of curls for Lydia and Julia). Mrs. Malaprop, who wears a feathery mountain on her head, is the character for whom the play is best known. Schultz's hilarious portrayal of the vocabulary-challenged Malaprop keeps the audience in stitches. Almost every sentence she utters contains some misappropriated word, a fault of language that has ever since been dubbed a "malaprop." Shining examples include, "Men are all Bavarians (barbarians)" and "She is the very pineapple (pinnacle) of politeness." Schultz enunciates these slips clearly so that we don't miss the joke, but it's clear that Mrs. Malaprop means it all quite seriously.
For teachers and students of literature, The Pearl's exemplary production of The Rivals is a must-see. But all theater lovers will want to make sure this one doesn't slip past them. The Rivals is just as funny now as it must have been in Sheridan's day, because people are still just as ridiculously silly about love.