REVIEW: The Rivals packs satirical wit into an English romance comedy

The School of Dramatic Arts put on a production of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Rivals at the Bing Theatre last weekend. Set in Bath, England in the late 18th century, the play told the story of Lydia Languish (Alyona Podkolzina) and her suitors Captain Jack Absolute (Michael Khachanov), Bob Acres (Richard James O’Young) and Sir Lucius O’Trigger (Gogo Ivanovski).

Written in 1775, The Rivals was not only Sheriden’s first play, but also his most famous. The play was directed by Andy Robinson, a professor of theatre practice who has achieved notable success as a film and television actor and director for over 30 years.

As its namesake would suggest, the rivalries of Lydia’s suitors drove the complexity of the play. Its plot involves mistaken identities, farcical twists and grand miscommunication that is all told through a satirical lens.

The Rivals centers around the love affair of the hopelessly romantic Lydia Languish and Captain Jack Absolute. Jack, the son of a wealthy baronet, courts Lydia under a secret identity, posing as a poor officer under the alias Ensign Beverley. Though Lydia is thrilled at the prospect of being courted by Jack’s alias, her guardian, Mrs. Malaprop, strongly objects to their relationship due to Beverley’s low social status.

The Rivals stayed true to its name — the play introduced two other suitors who competed with Jack for Lydia’s hand. Nevertheless, Lydia remained loyal to Beverley, only to spurn him later when she realizes he had deceived her of his true identity. Through dramatic duels, proclamations of love and a cleverly written dialogue, The Rivals presents viewers with an engagingly satirical vision of 18th century courtship, love and marriage.

The plot of The Rivals is almost unimportant to the audience’s enjoyment of the show. The play’s narrative became purposefully over-complicated as Sheridan intermingles the plot with long and complex digressions of wit and humor — complete with winding dialogue that satirizes 18th century romance.

The play went on various tangents to comment on women’s literacy and participation in other societal customs of the time period. With unfamiliarly antiquated dialogue and subject matter, the play could come off as stilted, and could fail to resonate with the average theatregoer.

Nevertheless, the actors deserve credit for their roles. Laughs and giggles from the theater showed their success. The natural appearance of the actors’ old-fashioned interactions and their confident stage presence demonstrate their mastery of Sheridan’s archaic dialogue.

At times, a few of the actors’ accents slipped, losing their British inflection for brief moments. However, the protagonists’ acting was so well-tuned that the audience went along with it.

There were a few standouts in the cast, such as Shaun Heard, a graduate student studying fine arts, who played the role of Sir Anthony Absolute. Sir Absolute is the father of Jack and attempts to arrange his son’s marriage. Intimidating and domineering, Heard captured the audience’s eye when he walked on stage. His comedic depiction easily garnered the most chuckles that night.

The performance effectively satirized the wealth of these characters and the upper echelons of England. The lavish costumes, crafted by designer Howard Schmitt, helped the actors pop out from the background without being overly anachronistic.

The performance’s success was also due to Robinson’s solid direction. As with any production, there were a few awkward pauses, like a lack of music in scene transitions that left the theater silent while stagehands move the props. Yet, the actors’ improvisation in the face of on stage issues — like when a door wouldn’t close or an actor’s ponytail fell off — morphed them into comedic occurences.