Reviewed by Judy Richter
It's hard to dispel notions of romantic love. You'd think that after so many centuries of civilization, people would realize that it takes more than attraction and sighs to sustain a healthy, long-lasting relationship. Richard Brinsley Sheridan's 1775 "The Rivals," being staged by American Conservatory Theater, is an example of how little many of us have learned over the centuries.
Set in Bath, England, the play focuses on young lovers, most notably Captain Jack Absolute (Anthony Fusco), who loves the wealthy Lydia Languish (Reną© Augesen), and Lydia's cousin Julia (Stacy Ross), who loves Jack's friend Faulkland (Gregory Wallace). Two other men -- country bumpkin Bob Acres (Dan Hiatt) and Irishman Sir Lucius O'Trigger (Andy Murray) -- also pine for Lydia, making them rivals to Jack. Jack also is a rival to himself, for he has courted Lydia in the guise of Ensign Beverly, a virtuous but impoverished soldier. Lydia is taken by the idea of such a man who would love her even though she would lose her fortune by marrying him. Mistaken identities abound, creating humor.
Jack and Julia are eminently sensible, but not anyone else. The emotional Faulkland frets constantly about whether Julia loves him, interpreting her every action as an indication that she doesn't. Joining the list of well-meaning but somewhat delusional characters are Lydia's aunt, Mrs. Malaprop (Jill Tanner), who fancies herself an intellectual but whose misuse of the English vocabulary is so extensive that such mistakes such as "he is the very pineapple of politeness" and "like an allegory on the Nile" are known as malapropisms. Jack's father, Sir Anthony Absolute (Charles Dean), thinks he's a caring father, but his actions speak otherwise.
Director Lillian Groag emphasizes the artifices that Sheridan so thoroughly reveals, and she has a superb cast to work with. All of the actors have the comic skills to expose their characters' pretensions and silliness by allowing the characters to take themselves seriously without directly becoming silly themselves. Dan Hiatt, one of the Bay Area's most skilled physical comic actors, is especially hilarious when Bob Acres changes from his rough-hewn country apparel to a foppish pink outfit that he thinks is the height of fashion.
Costume designer Beaver Bauer abets the characters' comic aspects with such outfits as well as Mrs. Malaprop's colorful but outlandish gowns, topped by a reddish wig with waggling butterflies (hair and makeup by Jeanna Hurd). Donald Eastman's set design is both simple and ingenious, featuring two facing crescents of townhouses with an obelisk with the name Sheridan upstage center. Facilitating quick scene changes, the downstage sections of the crescents swing open, and short platforms slide in to become rooms in various houses. Nancy Schertler's lighting and Jack Rodriguez's sound, featuring appropriate music (a feature of Groag-directed plays), add to the overall high quality of this delightful production.