Unless you were an English or drama major, chances are you don't know anything about the sentimental comedies of the 1770s or how playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan took a stand against censorship with his bit of burlesque, "The Rivals," a comic response to the restrictive Stage Licensing Act of 1737.
Never heard of the Stage Licensing Act of 1737? Me neither, until I'd read Production Dramaturg Whitney Egger's essay in the Center Stage program (it's well worth reading; one of the many perks of attending a Center Stage production).
Doesn't matter. You don't need to be a "dramaturg" or "Georgian" theater buff to appreciate this bit of 18th century burlesque.
"The Rivals" features a stellar case including veteran Broadway actor David Margulies in the role of Sir Anthony Absolute who has evidently taken fathering lessons from George S. Patton. Sir Anthony imposes his loving, draconian will upon his son, Captain Jack Absolute, played by Manu Narayan, who in his voice and gestures reminded me of a much younger, much better looking Jon Lovitz (no offense, Mr.Lovitz...or Mr. Narayan, for that matter).
The good Captain has designs on one Ms. Lydia Languish (Zoe Winters), aptly named (as is everyone in this play as Sheridan demonstrates a Dickensian skill when it comes to hanging monikers), as she spends her day languishing on a settee, devouring romance novels. She loves only an ensign named "Beverly" though unbeknownst to her , Jack and Beverly are one and the same.
Looking to her niece's well-being is Mrs. Malaprop (Kristine Nielsen), as in malapropism, a turn of phrase which is, in fact, nonsense. All a-flutter and typically with an expression of a surprised cat, Mrs. Malaprop delicately butchers the King's English with such delightful lines as "We shall not anticipate the past..our retrospective will all be to the future."
Also seeking Lydia's hand is Bob Acres, a "country bumpkin" who seeks to rise above his station by adopting French fashions-a suit that's more floral garden than coat, makeup just this short of clown and a hairdo that had me thinking "pink cotton candy."
As Acres is ridiculous in dress, Evan Zes as Sir Lucius O'Trigger is as laughable in manner, jittering across stage as though coated in itching powder, potbelly thrust forward, accent a mix of Irish brogue and Spanish barrio-my theater companion found comparison with Cheech Marin.
Sir Lucius also has designs on Ms. Lydia though he has, in fact, been exchanging love letters with Mrs.Malaprop.
Which leads us to Mr. Faulkland, who is NOT in love with Lydia but is entwined with her friend, Julia...if his ever analyzing mind will let him. Speaking with a yelp, Faulkland is, as Jack observes, "a slave to his own fretfulness," and suffers from problems "of his own making." In today's terms, Faulkland would find a way of screwing up a free lunch.
Toss in some savvy servants and mischievous maids - Danny Gavigan as Fag/David and Libya Pugh as Lucy-and you've got a comedy of manners AND errors, an 18th century "As You Like It" meets 1920s slapstick and every member of this talented cast hamming it up to the hilt.
Kudos to artistic director, David Schweizer, and his scene and costume designers, Caleb Wertenbaker and David Burdick, respectively, who have created an wonderfully colorful set with modular-multi-use pieces; I noted how each the color and patterns of each character's "lodgings" reflected the same in their dress. For example, Julia wears purple with white ruffles; her couch is a striped purple and white.
While Mrs. Malaprop speaks nonsense, the playwright definitely does not. Though this play is nearly 300 years old, it continues to resonate today with its commentary on how each sex views the other, the role of education among women, and as regards the foibles and frailties of the human condition.
"The Rivals" continues its run at Center Stage,700 North Calvert Street, now through October 30th. Tickets are $10-$55 and can be ordered online at www.centerstage.org/rivals or by call 410-332-0033.