What Constellation Theatre Company giveth, Center Stage taketh away.
Comedies of manners and farce usually send this critic screaming into the night and searching for a bar that serves cocktails in birdbath-sized glasses, but Constellation’s delightful production of A Flea in Her Ear made me soften my stance on these theatrical genres. That, however, proved temporary, as The Rivals at Center Stage has restored me to my former loathing of anything with bloomers, servants imparting skeins of exposition, hoop skirts, and hands fluttering to temples with exclamations of “Alas, poor me!”
Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s 1775 Georgian comedy pretty much encompasses all that puts the Dramamine in drama — stock characters, silly plots, romantic upheavals between lovers you couldn’t care less whether they end up traipsing down the aisle, and contrived comeuppances.
The comedy concerns a clutch of swells biding their time at the English resort of Bath. The wealthy Miss Lydia Languish (Zoe Winters) is in love with a poor ensign named Beverly, who is really the equally affluent Captain Jack Absolute (Manu Narayan) in disguise. They have much in common, since Lydia’s dominated by her baroquely ridiculous aunt Mrs. Malaprop (Kristine Nielsen), and Jack is much aggrieved by the lordly bullying of his father Sir Anthony Absolute (David Margulies). Other entanglements, romantic and otherwise, involve Lydia’s cousin Julia (Caroline Hewitt), whose constancy is constantly tested by her betrothed, the nervous wreck Mr. Faulkland (Clifton Duncan), and Mrs. Malaprop being wooed by the opportunistic Sir Lucius O’Trigger (Evan Zes), an Irish baronet.
In fairness, Mr. Sheridan’s play does satirize these archetypes and tried-and-true plot devices as well as commenting on the mores of the day—such as the belief that education is the ruination of a young woman. The Rivals also sends up a society overly fond of sentimentality and foppish fashion.
No frisson of parody comes through in Center Stage’s production, directed by David Schweizer. It’s a creampuff of a show—albeit a pastry you are forced to chew on for two hours and forty minutes. Even the most ardent admirer of sugary treats might find that a trial.
The type of foolishness found in The Rivals and other comedies of its burlesque ilk may be the trickiest to pull off, since it requires a go-for-broke outrageousness where nothing is considered over the top. As a colleague’s acting teacher once described it “Farce is diamonds, Diamonds, DIAMONDS!” But at the same time, the buffoonery needed to be rooted in truth—you must believe that the characters’ behavior and motivations are in earnest. It can’t be all for show.
Visual gloss and surface actions dominate in The Rivals. The shadow box-style set by Caleb Wertenbaker cleverly uses Regency-era flocked wallpaper motifs rendered in lustrous peacock hues. Other than the curlicues and floral patterns, the streamlined set consists of carefully chosen props wheeled in and out by the actors, who are clad in David Burdick’s delectably eye-burning costumes, a riot of loud stripes, creamy lace, overblown blossoms and clashing patterns. The dress for the language-mangling Mrs. Malaprop is a rococo masterpiece—silk monarch butterflies trailing dizzily down the saffron yellow bodice and full skirt and the ensemble comes complete with matching hair ornaments and a chandelier.
Too bad the rest of the play does not come close to the splendor of the costumes and the overall look. The production aims at relevance by having some characters talk on cell phones, read bodice-ripping romance novels and other contemporary touches, but nothing says “dead white European theater” like having the actors deliver their lines in august, declamatory style—often while standing stock still. Maybe this is an attempt at being arch and mocking the comedy of manners, but the way it is presented here it is difficult for the audience to view it as such.
All we see are a bunch of people on stage acting like stiffs who once in awhile become seized with some sort of bizarre fit of agitation. The cast largely plays the roles with one-dimensional artificiality and posturing, as if the characters themselves know that they are archetypes. The exception to this is Miss Nielsen’s Mrs. Malaprop, a delicious collection of tics, lopsided expressions, double-takes and hilarious reactions. She tries to keep things buoyant all by her lonesome and an onerous task it is. Miss Nielsen appears to be in an entirely different, much more fun play altogether. You so long to join her.
The Rivals runs through October 30, 2011 at Center Stage, 700 North Calvert St., Baltimore, MD
Details and tickets
by Richard Brinsley Sheridan
Directed by David Schweizer
Produced by Center Stage
Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard
Running Time: 2 hours and 40 minutes with one 15-minute intermission