5 February 2005: Sheridan, The Rivals

Matinee. Huntington Theatre Company, Boston University, Directed by Nicholas Martin. Scenery by Alexander Dodge; costumes by Michael Krass.

A splendid, high-spirited, playful production of Sheridan’s effervescent comedy, very well directed and acted, and supported by a brilliant scenic concept. The great neoclassic Crescent of Bath has been re-erected on the Huntington stage. We are privileged to have a full view inside the Crescent, which places us at the hub of this comic universe. To take us indoors into private apartments in the domicile of Mrs. Malaprop and elsewhere, sections of the inside façade of the Crescent separate and are pushed on to center stage, giving us Lydia Languish’s boudoir or Captain Jack Absolute’s bachelor quarters. This device achieves a wonderful fluidity while at the same time keeping us well oriented toward the center of a lively, pleasure-grounded society that was Bath in the late eighteenth century. Add to this that, at the beginning of each act, the curtain rises behind a proscenium-filling scrim through which we see a tableau of a considerable range of characters, servants as well as major characters, suggest­ing the lively, healthy comic community whose well-being is the ultimate concern of the dramatist.

The costumes are original and brilliant in a fantastic sort of way, in which gay contrasting mixtures of primary and other bold colors are juxtaposed in happy, fun-provoking conflict. Mrs. Malaprop has a wig twice the height of her face, towering over her head; and Bob Acres’s transformation from country rustic to would-be gentleman on the make is accomplished by a similar tower of reddish hair whose stability is near-miraculous despite its sixteen-inch height.

Will LeBow is a standout as Sir Anthony Absolute, all gruff-and-grum exterior but transparently a soft touch, a character who knows himself much less well than does his canny son Jack Absolute. But there is strength throughout the cast. David, servant to Bob Acres, has an automatic reflex in the form of a triple bow from the waist, rapid and deep, accompanying an earnest, anxious, solicit­ous facial expression that tells us that he believes everyone he meets is of higher estate than he and deserves his wondering homage. Mary Louise Wilson is exactly right as Mrs. Malaprop, capturing in all of its comic monstrosity her character’s pride in a vocabulary gone seriously and hilariously awry, from “a nice derangement of epitaphs” to “an allegory on the bank of the Nile.” It is rumored that Wilson is to play Martha in an upcoming revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.

It is a pleasure, finally to see a play from the standard repertoire so well handled and well understood by everyone from the director on down.


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An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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