A classic English comedy of manners might seem to dwell several worlds away from a California audience. After all, women today enjoy equal rights, arranged marriages are a thing of the past in most of Western society, and the decorum of rigid social hierarchy has been flung off like a restrictive corset. Yet Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Rivals (1774) continues to engage audiences not only for the entertainment value of its wit and farce but also because hypocrisy, romantic illusions, and the generation gap never go out of fashion.
The storyline follows the efforts of Captain Jack Absolute (Quinn Mattfeld) to woo the beautiful Lydia Languish (Stephanie Philo), an undertaking that is complicated by the fact that Lydia’s sensibilities have been shaped by romantic novellas. She wishes for nothing more than to abandon wealth and convention — not to mention her overbearing guardian Mrs. Malaprop (Kitty Balay) — in exchange for true love and a scandalous elopement. Meanwhile a secondary romance is developing between Captain Jack’s dithering friend Faulkland (Tony Carter) and Lydia’s confidant Julia (Andrea Hilbrant). Along the way, the comedy is both complicated and compelled by several main characters: Jack’s volcanic father, Sir Anthony Absolute (Erik Stein); an Irish suitor, Sir Lucius O’Trigger (Peter S. Hadres); Bob Acres (Evans Eden Jarnefeldt), a country bumpkin trying to be a proper gentleman; Captain Jack’s servant, Fag (Jeffrey Parker Boyce); and Lydia’s servant, Lucy (Jacqueline Hildebrand).
The costumes are remarkably beautiful. Fred Deeben dresses the cast fashionably and colorfully for 18th-century Bath, a city known for its excess and dissipation. Movement of the action between indoors and outdoors is cleverly accomplished with a replica of the city’s Royal Crescent, as well as miniature buildings that transform into furniture, courtesy of set designer Heidi Hoffer. This performance is full of creative interpretation and physical humor, a mining of meaning between and behind the words. Mattfeld’s playing of the straight man against Balay and Stein does much to magnify the eccentricities of their characters. Stein’s Sir Anthony quickly became an audience favorite on Saturday, garnering applause with every exit. Boyce’s excellent portrayal of Fag brings just enough queen to the part to pander to modern connotations. (The word was not associated with homosexuality until the 20th century.) Hildebrand’s portrayal of the cockney and conniving Lucy adds much to the production. Although Hilbrant’s delivery is a little rushed (her speeches are thick with delicious conceits), nevertheless she and Philo give fine performances as the noble missies.
Credit is due to artistic director Mark Booher and the leadership at PCPA for a continued commitment to classic theater as an integral component in a well-rounded curriculum.