Encore Michigan

“Rivals” a hearty stew of comedy to be eaten with gusto

Review July 24, 2015 Bridgette Redman

It’s nearly impossible to say too much good about Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s “The Rivals” at the Michigan Shakespeare Festival. There are so many things in it that are delightful–individual performances, the accents, the elevated language, the malapropisms, the costumes, the set, the exaggerated movements, the asides, the sword fighting.

It’s an all-together satisfying afternoon at the theater. Traditionally, the Michigan Shakespeare Festival annually performs two Shakespeare plays and one classic. This year the classic is Sheridan’s “The Rivals,” written in 1775 and a favorite play of George Washington’s.

It is set in Bath, where lovers gather to woo and others gather to take the waters and cure their gout. Lydia Languish (Laurel Schroeder) is a young heiress who has no shortage of wooers. She has fallen in love with Ensign Beverly, who is really Captain Jack Absolute (Dan Wilson) in disguise. She is in love with the idea of marrying a poor soldier without her guardian’s permission. Her guardian, Mrs. Malaprop (Wendy Katz Hiller) forbids the match while she carries on a written liaison with Sir Lucius O’Trigger (David Blixt), under the name of Delia, whom O’Trigger thinks is Lydia, thanks to the machinations of the maid (Lydia Hiller). Meanwhile Jack’s friend Bob Acres (Milan Malisic) is also courting Lydia.

Jack’s father, Sir Anthony Absolute (Alan Ball), then shows up with an arranged marriage for Jack—to Lydia. Throw in a mix of servants who all share their masters’ secrets and carry messages, and you have all the makings of this centuries-old comedy.

Director Robert Kauzlaric gives each character the room to be unique and interesting. He cut the play so that it flows smoothly and never lags. His blocking is a thing of beauty, one that adds to the comedy as players create stairs where none seem to exist, crosses create the traffic of Bath in the opening, and the final denouement presents a stage picture where all are shown off to their best advantage.

Dialect specialist Elise Kauzlaric deserves a special shout-out as she coached the actors in a number of different dialects and accents. Everyone had an accent and there was a distinct sound between the classes, city and country folk.

It’s hard to single out any actor in this production when all were played with such singularity and hilarity. These are actors at the top of their craft. Yet, it would be remiss not to mention many of the fine performances that went into making this comedy so enjoyable.

Ball has swagger as the father who expects his every whim to be obeyed and his quarrel with his son shows off just some of Ball’s comic range. Wilson is cool and collected as Capt. Jack, giving him a confidence that he’s going to be able to pull off all his plans even when they start to fall apart around him. He ends up playing straight man to the bigger characters around him.

Edmund Alyn Jones plays Faulkland, Jack’s friend who is wooing Julia (Annie Keris). He frets over her fidelity, despite all the evidence that she is true to him. Faulkland is one of those people who puts the worst possible interpretation on everything out of his own jealousies and Jones makes this a comic rather than tragic figure. His mourning is foppish as is his inability to be consoled with fact or reason. Keris balances him out perfectly with her steadfastness and by being the very picture of all that Faulkland knows he wants and worries he doesn’t have. Julia endures his bad behavior and even defends it.

Malisic plays up the difference between the old rich and the new in such a way that spins comic gold. His physicality is huge and he adopts affectations in an attempt to fit in among the wealthy. Everything about him is at odds with the other gentlemen, and he plays it up so that even to modern eyes the difference between class is obvious. He’s given a great assist by the costumer Melanie Schuessler when in the second act he comes out with blue hair and a tacky multi-colored outfit, but by then he’s already established that he is out of place and a comic figure for the audience and those in the play alike.

Blixt grounds O’Trigger with a gravitas that is in perfect contrast to Malisic’s outlandishness. Their scenes together work especially well as each one highlights the other’s personality. Blixt also doubles as the fight director and O’Trigger’s sword fight with Jack is skilled and filled with finesse.

Schroeder holds her own as the romance-addicted maiden who is more in love with love than with her lover. She is impish and impudent with her guardian, pouty with her friend and entranced with her lover until it comes time for them to quarrel. It is not entirely her fault that she is overshadowed by the bigger-than-life Mrs. Malaprop. Blame that instead on the costumer and Wendy Katz Hiller who fills the stage both with her 4-foot wide dress and her over-the-top behavior. Hiller owns the stage when she is on it and she charges through malaprop after malaprop without the slightest hesitation.

Lydia Hiller adds much to the role of Lucy, Lydia’s maid. She affects a simplicity with raised hands and open mouth that makes her seem quite daft and then drops it all in an instant when revealing how she schemes to make money from everyone. It’s a delicious contrast that adds spice to this already hearty stew of a comedy.

Schuessler’s costumes deserve their own curtain call. In particular, Mrs. Malaprop’s costume is tacky in the extreme, perfect for her character. The four-foot wide lemon yellow skirt is bedecked with swathes of orange, light blue and purple fabric. In contrast, the dresses of Lydia and Julia are beautiful and tasteful. Each character gets an outfit that is true to their character and evokes the period well.

“The Rivals” may not be the best known of the classic comedies, but in the hands of Kauzlaric and his team it is well-worth seeing. This comedy of manners tickles, woos and entertains its audiences.