— Production photo
Blackbird Theatre, Vancouver’s only more-or-less classical company, gives us a colourful, energetic production of Sheridan’s 18th century comedy of manners, The Rivals, to mark Blackbird’s 10th anniversary and the final play opening of 2015.
Director Johnna Wright updates the 1775 English setting of Bath to Edwardian times—not quite the country-and-western makeover she gave The Merry Wives of Windsor at Bard on the Beach, but enough to justify some zippy scene-changing music from Bruce Ruddell, Sheila White’s delicious costumes, and Scott Bellis’ drawlin’ Southe’n gentleman characterization of Lucius O’Trigger, originally an Irish baron.
After a gorgeous amped-up opening—our romantic heroine Lydia Languish (Emma Slipp) revealed in a bubble bath—Wright doesn’t offer many surprises but has her talented cast push their characters very close to the edge, a hit-and-miss strategy that works often enough to generate big laughs, especially from the show’s comic stars, Kirk Smith as the foolish country suitor Bob Acres and Gabrielle Rose as the infamous Mrs. Malaprop.
O’Trigger, Acres and handsome Captain Jack Absolute (Martin Happer) are the rivals for Lydia’s hand. Jack woos her under the assumed identity of Ensign Beverley to suit her romantic inclinations. Lydia’s Aunt Malaprop is an obstacle; she and Jack’s absolutist father, Sir Anthony (Duncan Fraser), try to arrange a match between Lydia and Jack, not realizing that Jack and Beverley are the same man. Mrs. Malaprop has eyes for Mr. O’Trigger in a deception aided by clever maid Lucy (Jenny Wasko-Paterson). A side plot features Jack’s jealous friend Faulkland (John Emmet Tracy) in an on-again-off-again romance with Lydia’s bff Julia (Luisa Jojic).
Smith’s Bob Acres is a cowardly lion on speed, all mismatched plaids and jerky physicality to go with his weird invented epithets (“Odds blushes and blooms!”). His attempts to wheedle his way out of the duel he finds himself talked into are particularly funny.
I wish Sheridan had written a sub-plot that involved Bob with Mrs. Malaprop. Smith and Rose together would be a sight to behold. Mrs. Malaprop is certainly the play’s best known character due to her confident mangling of vocabulary: Lydia “is as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile”; Jack “the very pineapple of politeness.” Rose punctuates some of her ferociously self-assured pronouncements with a strange refocusing of her eyes, as if Mrs. M has just come from a very faraway place where English gentlewomen have peyote with their port. It’s the kind of glorious performance we have come to expect from this wonderful actress.
Fraser also draws some excellent laughs as Sir Anthony, especially in his hot and bothered description to Jack of Lydia’s fine physical features.
Like most classical scripts, chunks of The Rivals that might have been hilarious in 1775 fall flat today. Faulkland’s perverse jealousy gets way too much stage time and the play’s comic resolution feels long and anticlimactic. Nor is Wright’s adaptation problem-free: Bellis’ O’Trigger would be better off gone with the wind.
The Rivals offers an amusing diversion for bidding adieu to the old year and welcoming in the new.