In the 1770s, Dublin-born Richard Brinsley Sheridan was a newly married man, and his wife, Elizabeth Linley, according to the societal mores befitting a gentleman’s wife at the time, had given up her lucrative career and substantial income as a singer. In need of funds because their entertainment of gentry and nobility caused financial woes, Sheridan turned to playwriting.
“The Rivals,” Sheridan’s first play, opened in London’s Covent Garden in 1775. Although considered a masterpiece today, “The Rivals” was vilified for its length of five acts, bawdiness, and perception of an insult to Ireland with the characterization of Sir Lucius O’Trigger. (The actor was even hit with an apple lobbed by an unhappy audience member.) Wisely, Sheridan withdrew the play and rewrote it in 11 days. “The Rivals” then received much acclaim, becoming the favorite of the royal family and George Washington. In terms of adaptations, “The Rivals” was a popular musical in 1935, a 1958 TV episode of James Garner’s “Maverick,” and, most recently, a 2011 film starring James Corden, Imelda Staunton and Albert Finney.
And now “The Rivals” is a superb production running at American Players Theatre’s outdoor Hill Theatre in Spring Green, Wisconsin. The action is set in Bath, England, legendary locale for the wealthy fashionable who took to the warm healing spa waters (a cleverly manipulated and visually pleasing set designed by Shaun Motley). The plot centers on the romantic adventures of Lydia Languish, who is determined to marry for love, her head turned by romantic novels. Lydia will not marry anyone within her social circle of wealth, preferring an impoverished, common soldier.
Naturally, a wealthy officer, Capt. Jack Absolute, is madly in love with Lydia, and to win her favor, disguises himself as lowly Ensign Beverly. To complicate matters, Jack’s officious, boisterous father, Sir Anthony Absolute, who must not be sent into a frenzy, is in cahoots with the inadvertently humorous aunt, Mrs. Malaprop (don’t get ahead of me here if you guess that’s the origin of the literary term malapropism). The plan is for Jack to marry her niece, Lydia. And because one love affair isn’t enough, we also have encounters with the orphan ward of Sir Anthony, Julia Melville, who is rapturously in love with Capt. Jack’s good friend, Faulkland.
To quote the astute and creative director, Aaron Posner, he “thought of ‘The Rivals’ as a 250-year-old prototype of a sitcom,” and assures us this play is “all about love – most of the best plays are in one way or another.” Posner keeps the pace of this 2.5-hour production fresh and flowing; the sight gags and character interpretations are just ingenious. The addition of Rebecca Schinker’s musical comments is also a humorous touch.
The 14-actor ensemble is a skilled, multi-talented, courageous and buoyantly beautiful mix of APT veterans and newbies resplendent in gorgeous 1920-era costumes designed by Susan Mickey. And congratulations to voice and text coach Eva Breneman for her aural welcome to the British classes.
The ensemble first assembles en masse on stage in a comedic song welcoming the audience; they return to sing you out at intermission and the finale. Thus begins an evening’s delicious pleasure of performance and words.
In a younger than normal, much more glamorous casting, is Tracy Michelle Arnold as Mrs. Malaprop. She’s just superb, a proper genteel lady, and how she can deliver her malapropisms with a straight face and sincerity is incomprehensible. (For example: “Men are such bavarians!”)
David Daniel is Sir Anthony Absolute, an absolute bluster of a domineering gentleman. His sputtering, hearty laugh, frenzy, and delivery of lines such as “don’t enter the same hemisphere as me. I will disinherit you. I will un-get you!” are magnificently delivered – physically, vocally and ostentatiously.
Marcus Truschinski is his honorable, handsome son, Capt. Jack. He knows how to flip his hair for effect and pacify his father. Truschinski is perfect with his frustrations, practicality, romantic notions and sophistication. Jack’s love interest, Lydia, a wealthy femme fatale with a temper and love of reading, is beautifully played by Kelsey Brennan. She’s exceptional, flirtatious and passionate – at times acting like a spoiled child. Truschinski and Brennan are a lot of fun to watch together.
Yet, there are some definite scene stealers in this production. Lydia’s maid, Lucy, played by Colleen Madden, has one early scene when she reveals her long list of outside dealings and earnings from being a go-between for practically everybody. Madden plays Lucy as duplicitous and clever, and Madden is very, very good.
In every scene and every moment played in the aisle, you cannot help but fall in love with Josh Krause as the odd country squire, Bob Acres. His thousand-watt smile, expressive face, and nimble execution of moves from prancing to dancing are just adorable. He’s the innocent comic relief in this comedy and just a pure delight.
Phoebe González’s character Julia gets a big round of audience applause when she breaks off her engagement to Faulkland, and shows backbone. González shows us how this all “blushes and blooms” ideal female gives up trying to reassure her intended when she realizes that Faulkland has trifled with her sincerity. She is a class act.
Assistant Director Kailey Azure Green went on for actor Tim Gittings in the role of Hastings, Sir Anthony’s valet, the evening I attended. What Green can do as a mirror mime is astounding, not to mention very funny.
There are other strong performances, most credibly Brian Mani as Mr. Fig, Captain Jack’s loyal butler. Mani is the definitive gentleman’s gentleman in stature and melodic voice. Thanks to Ronald Román-Meléndez’s portrayal of Faulkland, Capt. Jack’s best friend, we are presented with a character who is decidedly over-anxious and the opposite of Jack in every way. He’s also petulant, and as Jack says, “the teasing, captious, incorrigible lover and slave to fretfulness and whim.” As for the Irish baronet character that Sheridan got into so much trouble with, James Ridge plays O’Trigger as a gracious, knowing and wise ex-soldier with a lilting Irish accent and jig in his step who is also a devious defendant of valor that gets a few people into trouble.
Not surprisingly, American Players Theatre’s shows sell out fast; it is reported that there is an annual audience of more than 110,000 per season. True to APT’s Shakespearean mission, plays this season include everything from “Hamlet” to “Love’s Labour’s Lost,” with a sprinkling of other works such as “Sense and Sensibility” and “A Raisin in the Sun.”
There’s free bug spray everywhere, concession stands, a gift shop, picnic areas, real restrooms, and green shirted helpful staff all over. Of course, there are outstanding theaters close to home and throughout Chicago, but there is something quite magnificent about sitting under a canopy of stars in the Wisconsin woods while enjoying a live theatrical production on a summer’s eve.
• Regina Belt-Daniels is an ardent admirer of summer theater with nature as a backdrop and stars for a ceiling. Currently serving on the RCLPC Theatre Board and the It’s Showtime Advisory Committee, when not attending the theater, she can be found happily teaching, traveling with her husband, acting, directing and writing theater reviews.
IF YOU GO
WHAT: “The Rivals”
WHERE: American Players Theatre’s outdoor Hill Theatre, 5950 Golf Course Road, Spring Green, Wisconsin
WHEN: In repertory through Sept. 17
INFORMATION: 608-588-2361, email@example.com, americanplayers.org