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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

The Rivals Entertains
at NJ Shakespeare Theatre

The rivals
(l-r) Steve Wilson, Richard Bourg, Kate Dawson and Monique Fowler
As this reviewer noted in a 2004 review here, The Rivals, Richard Brinsley Sheridan's wise and witty comedy, so well combines verbal wit with buffoonish high jinks that it has remained an active staple of the English language stage for over 200 years. In the current, seemingly uncut (except for prologue and epilogue), almost three hour long production at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, there is also a great deal of wisdom concerning human nature amidst the tomfoolery on display.

The play is set in the English resort town of Bath. High-born and wealthy Captain Jack Absolute loves the similarly endowed Lydia Languish. However, the foolishly romantic Lydia will only consider a poor man so that her choice will be based on true love. Thus, Jack dons the disguise of a lowly Naval ensign to woo and win her. Unalterably opposed to Lydia's involvement with a poor sailor, her aunt Mrs. Malaprop arranges with Sir Anthony Absolute for her niece to be married to Sir Anthony's son, who just happens to be her disguised lover, Captain Jack.

The evening does get off to a slow start. Captain Jack's servant, Fag (Derek Wilson), and Sir Anthony's coachman, Thomas (Tom Robenolt), meet unexpectedly on the street and humorously provide some exposition. Their exaggerated English accents and rapid fire speech muddy the exposition. Lydia's conniving servant, Lucy (Kristie Dale Sanders), enters performing in the same manner with like results. Thus, the audience is forced to play catch up on who is doing what in relation to whom for quite a bit of time. In fact, several overly emphatic performances in which the actors announce how funny their characters are distance us from the characters and the humor inherent in the script. However, several fine performances combine with the superior quality of the writing to enable the production to find its stride and come home a winner.

Richard Bourg and Steve Wilson are a fine, well matched pair as Absolute father and son. Although their positions and relationship initially make them appear to be quite opposite, Bourg as the dictatorial, dominating father and Wilson as the determined not to be dominated son make it clear that the pair are actually two sides of the same coin. Kate Dawson is a charmingly silly Lydia.

Captain Jack has two foolish rivals for Lydia's affection. One is his friend, country bumpkin Bob Acres, who has no idea that Jack is his ensign rival. The other is the loquacious, manipulative Irishman, Sir Lucius. As Acres, Jeffrey M. Bender is too broad. Working too hard for his laughs, he blunts the comic impact of the role. As Sir Lucius, James Michael Reilly amuses, performing with a winningly insincere, easy manner and flowing musical brogue. Mary Bacon (as Lydia's confidant) and Christian Conn (as Jack's) lend adequate support as the very silly secondary romantic couple.

Monique Fowler is too far over the top as Mrs. Malaprop. She offers precious little modulation, giving a one note performance in which every sentence is delivered as a punch line. Although Mrs. Malaprop is a comic caricature, the role plays more effectively when imbued with a spark of humanity.

Scenic designer James Wolk has designed a lovely set which features a series of stylish (circa 1775) doors forming a gentle arc running from downstage at the right to upstage on the left. For each scene, one of the doors is rolled front and center, turned around and opened to reveal a room design for the house in which it is set. Director Matthew Arbour has directed an entertaining, smart looking The Rivals. If he could just get more of his cast to slow down, relax and trust the material, it would be even better.

The Rivals continues performances (Eves: Tues. 7/30; Wed.-Sat. 8 p.m.; Sunday 7 p.m. ; Mats. (Sat. & Sun. 2 p.m.) through August 27, 2006 at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey F. M. Kirby Theatre on the campus of Drew University, 36 Madison Avenue, Madison, NJ 07940; telephone: 973-408-5600; online: www.ShakespeareNJ.org

The Rivals by Richard Brinsley Sheridan; directed by Matthew Arbour

Cast

Fag…………………………..Derek Wilson
Thomas……………………..Tom Robenolt
Lucy……………....Kristie Dale Sanders
Lydia Languish………………Kate Dawson
Julia Melville………………….Mary Bacon
Mrs. Malaprop…………...Monique Fowler
Sir Anthony Absolute……...Richard Bourg
Capt. Jack Absolute…………..Steve Wilson
Faulkland………………….Christian Conn
Bob Acres……………...Jeffrey M. Bender
Errand Boy………………………Ethan Saks
Sir Lucius…………Kames Michael Reilly
David………………………...Blake Kubena
Servant To Acres…………….Pressly Coker
Maid To Mrs. Malaprop……Mallory Shear
Maid To Julia Melville………….Jillian Meek
Servant To Julia Melville…………John Heath


Photo © Gerry Goodstein


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- Bob Rendell



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