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REVIEW: The Rivals at the Shakespeare Theatre

J. Seward Johnson, King Lear, 1982The most famous play by Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751-1816) is probably School for Scandal, from 1777. However, his debut as a playwright in 1775 is one that most authors experience only in their dreams: after the disastrous opening of his first play, The Rivals, Sheridan rewrote and recast it to create a lasting success. In fact, one of Sheridan’s characters in this play, Mrs. Malaprop, gave her name to create the word for a type of error in speech which she exemplifies to great hilarity. From the French mal à propos (inopportune or ill-timed), a malaprop or malapropism is "the unintentional misuse of a word by confusion with one that sounds similar." This production at Washington’s Shakespeare Theatre, directed by Keith Baxter, will be presented through October 19. If you want to see a piece of theater history for yourself, you will have no better opportunity to see it done well by an excellent and exceedingly funny cast of actors and artistic team.

At the curtain call, the final bow is reserved for the two most important characters of the play, not either pair of young lovers finally united in the ultimate scene, but the blustering blowhard father Sir Anthony Absolute (David Sabin) and the "old weather-beaten she-dragon" herself, Mrs. Malaprop (Nancy Robinette). Any number of bad choices by actors could render these roles flat, vicious, and unsympathetic, nothing more than a mean-hearted old know-it-all and a ridiculous harpy who "misapprehends" her vocabulary. The secret to the success of Mr. Sabin and Ms. Robinette in this production lies in their creation of characters we genuinely like in spite of their personal foibles, which are considerable. Mr. Sabin hits exactly the right tone in Sir Anthony’s rabid barking tantrums, and Ms. Robinette puts on airs of speech ("she’s quite the queen of the dictionary") and gesture with virtuosic accuracy. These are satires of a certain class of upwardly mobile gentry that could have come right from Molière in the previous century, and they are presented and dissected with surgical precision.

As you can learn in an interview with the director, Baxter’s concept for the play was to "evoke a Gainsborough or Reynolds painting." Indeed, in one of the sets, the portrait put on the wall as Sir Anthony Absolute’s wife is a detail from the portrait of Mrs. Richard Brinsley Sheridan by Thomas Gainsborough (see image in post on September 8). Baxter says that he and set designer Simon Higlett wanted a historically accurate production, with "the sort of set and scene changes that the play would have had when it was first produced." This was impossible because the Lansburgh theater, which is an intimate and beautiful place to see live theater, has no flys. They surmounted these problems with a set of massive, neoclassical exteriors and interiors and a company of servants that create the sense of a well-appointed Georgian home. Furthermore, Baxter believed that the play can work only in its original time period, leading to a traditional production that J. Wynn Rousuck has called a "purist’s dream."

Baxter told the cast at the first rehearsal (see the transcript of his remarks) that Sheridan had created the first "romantic leading man with a sunny disposition" in Captain Jack Absolute (played so well by Hank Stratton) and Austen heroines, before Jane Austen had written any books, in Julia (Noel True) and Miss Lydia Languish (Tessa Auberjonois). The latter is a sort of female version of Don Quixote who, like the women in Molière’s Les Précieuses Ridicules, has read too many novels and expects her life to follow the plots of her favorite sentimental books. There are also members of other classes to ridicule, including the country bumpkin Bob Acres (Tom Story) and the bankrupt noble who instructs him in how to duel with honor, Sir Lucius O’Trigger (Floyd King). At the bottom of the social ladder are the cunning servants, Fag (Daniel Breaker), David (Edward Gero), and Lucy (Jenna Sokolowski). Rather than the all-knowing domestics who educate their masters in nobility whom we find in Beaumarchais and Italian comedy, these servants exhibit the same vices as those they serve, vanity, cowardice, and avarice, respectively. Every part in this production was well cast, and each actor plays his or her role ably.

By way of a conclusion, one thing that Weblogs create is a network of associations. Chance seems to draw things together in my mind from day to day, and because I am writing about these ideas on a daily (almost!) basis, I think I see things I would not otherwise. I have walked through the entry hall of the Lansburgh theater several times and never really noticed, until last night, the large cupronickel statue in the middle of the room. It is a somewhat stylized but still representational portrayal of King Lear (image to left above), and the sculptor is J. Seward Johnson, whose upcoming show at the Corcoran was the subject of my post on September 4.

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