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San Francisco by Richard Connema

A Silly and Sensible Production of Sheridan's The Rivals

Also see Richard's reviews of Morbidity and Mortality and Desire Under the Elms

The Rivals
Dan Hiatt, Gregory Wallace and Anthony Fusco
Richard Brinsley Sheridan's restoration classic The Rivals is being presented by the American Conservatory Theater at the Geary Theatre through April 23rd. This is a lovely stylish production with some of the Bay Area's top comic players playing some of the most famous characters in restoration comedy. The Rivals is a hard play to stage since the dialogue is full of long flourishes and formalized speeches that are hard on the ears of the American audiences used to short, quick speeches. American actors seem to have difficulty getting the cadence of restoration speech, and this is the reason when there have been only three major New York revivals since World War II, the last being a revival at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre which ran only 45 performances.

My first experience with this comedy of manners was when I was a junior in high school and my uncle took me to see the Eva La Gallienne production at the Shubert Theatre with Mary Boland playing the wonderful Mrs. Malaprop and Bobby Clark playing Bob Acres. Walter Hampton played Sir Anthony Absolute. Even at that tender age I enjoyed the performances, especially seeing the great comic actor Bobby Clark on stage. Some of my greatest theatrical pleasures have been seeing several sterling productions of Sheridan's farce in the United Kingdom with an English audience. Patricia Routledge was superb as Mrs. Malaprop at the Haymarket in London. The British know exactly how to present this restoration piece. American Conservatory Theatre has done a formalized production with some very comical highlights, especially in the second act. I think Mrs. Malaprop says it best when she says that is this production "is a very pineapple," which means very appealing.

All restoration comedies are complex and convoluted with subplots piled onto more subplots. The Rivals satirizes the sentimentalism and sophisticated pretensions of the 18th century. The play is about two couples involving Lydia Languish (Rene Augesen), a young heiress who is a passionate devotee of romantic novels. She does not like the idea of an approved marriage to a man of her class and wealth. She is infatuated with a poor soldier named Ensign Beverley. Unbeknownst to her, Beverly is really Captain Jack Absolute (Anthony Fusco), who has taken this identity to pander to Lydia's illusions about romantic love in order to court her. Lydia's aunt, Mrs Malaprop (Jill Tanner), is shocked at Lydia's association with a common soldier and she arranges with Jack's father, the right honorable Sir Anthony Absolute (Charles Dean) to have Lydia and Jack married as soon as possible. Even when Jack reveals that he is Beverly, she defiantly clings to her romantic notions and refuses to accept him.

Jack's friend Faulkland (Gregory Wallace) has his own cross to bear since this annoying passive-aggressive person is in love with Julia (Stacy Ross), Lydia's cousin. He has hoped she would be miserable without him since they are briefly parted. However, he finds she has been making merry in the country, leaving Faulkland feeling wretched. He devises a ridiculous way to test her love, only to find her breaking off their engagement because of the test. Stirring the pot of this elaborate plot is country bumpkin Bob Acres (Dan Haitt) and blustery Irishman Sir Lucius O'Trigger (Andy Murray), who believe they have been corresponding with the young heiress. However, it appears that Mrs. Malaprop might have been the culprit.

Director Lillian Groag has stuck close to the original staging of the play with very little flourishes. Most of the real comedy comes in the second act with the masterful comic acting of Dan Haitt (Nicholas Nickleby, A Flea in Her Ear and recently in The Immigrant) in the silliest looking outfit as Bob Acres. He is superb as a bumpkin who dresses in a mostly pink outfit and colored hair that is a caricature of an 18th century fop. This is a tour de force of comic acting.

Rene Augesen (A.C.T. Core member, The Voysey Inheritance, Cat on Hot Tin Roof) plays Lydia like a captivating nitwit who is in love with romance. Jill Tanner (last seen in San Francisco in Lettice and Lovage and an A.C.T. Core actress in the 1970s) plays Mrs. Malaprop as a stern guardian and very ostentatious in manner. She continually mangles the English language, but sometimes speaks so rapidly you are not sure what words are being mangled. Charles Dean (White Christmas and SFBATCC winner as best dramatic actor for 2005) as the cantankerous old blowhard Sir Anthony is hilarious, and he pretentiously rails against the over-education of women. In a speech between Sir Anthony and Mrs. Malaprop where she pontificates at length about social mores of the upper class, Sir Anthony replies, "Yes you are right Madam, I understood every third word you said." The audience also thought the same.

Anthony Fusco (Voysey Inheritance, The Gamester) with his fine theatrical voice makes an imposing Captain Jack Absolute. He effortlessly portrays the romantic hero. Gregory Wallace (A.C.T. core member, Gem of the Ocean, The Gamester) goes way overboard in his role of the outlandishly foppish Faulkland, especially in his opening speech about Julia's actions in the country. Stacy Ross (The Gamester, Killer Joe and Major Barbara) gives a stylish and genuine performance as Julia. Andy Murray (The Voysey Inheritance, The Gamester) is wonderful as the boasting Irish fortune hunter.

Claire Brownell (A.C.T. core member this year) is pleasant in the small role of Lucy. T. Edward Webster (The Mystery Plays, Night and Day) is entertaining as a servant to Jack. He plays the role very athletically. Jud Williford (A Christmas Carol and The Time of Your Life) is the perfect straight man for Dan Haitt's wonderful performance in the second act. Ann Farrar (A Christmas Carol and On the Bum) plays a dirty street urchin in a social satire of the lower class boy that was common in 18th century England.

Director Lillian Groag, set designer Donald Eastman and lighting designer Nancy Schertler have devised a striking theatre within a theatre set for this production, set against a gorgeous re-creation of a crescent of cream colored Georgian facades that I remember from City of Bath. Beautifully furnished rooms slide onstage for the interior scenes. There are wonderful paintings of dogs, which were a prime favorite of the upper set in English society during 1775, and a famous biblical painting of the Tower of Babel is strikingly predominate in the drawing room of Mrs. Malaprop. In the background of the crescent building is a pointed white pyramid monument with the lettering "Richard Brinsley Sheridan."

The Rivals runs through April 23 at the Geary Street Theatre, 405 Geary Street, San Francisco. Tickets can be purchased by calling 415-749-2228 or on line at www.act-sf.org.

A.C.T.'s next production is Caryl Churchill's A Number, opening on April 28 and running through May 28th. Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's operetta Happy End comes to the Geary on June 8 through July 9th.


Photo: Kevin Berne


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema



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