By: Isa Goldberg
On a summer evening in Central Park, you may fall upon a troupe of actors clad in 18th century garb, the period in which Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Rivals is set. A production by the all-free New York Classical Theatre, in the style of “panoramic theater,” the actors move the action from one grassy knoll, to a shaded field, on to a nearby pond, and around the park – so verdant it is calming. As is, of course, this fast-paced comedy of manners by the master of the genre, Sheridan.
Fortunately, the production is physically and literally easy to follow, regardless of the classical language. And it is true to the genre. The leisure of the audience reflects the exaggerated idleness on stage, which also mirrors the fashionable lives of the upper- class society it satirizes.
A romance, in which everyone ends up living happily ever after, The Rivals carries an exacting moral message–common sense, really. Even Mrs. Malaprop (Barbara Kingsley), whose barrage of humorous misstatements, from describing one suitor as the “very pineapple (pinnacle) of politeness” to accusing another of being “illegible,” ultimately hits it right. (In fact, the word malapropism derives from this character.) So, when she declares unabashedly that “men are all Bavarians (barbarians),” her remark still hits the target.
In her role as guardian to the heiress, Lydia Languish, she is admirably propelled to grant the young woman a proper education. Indeed, the feminism that the play preaches is surprising to a contemporary audience, and all the more fun because of how they play us for it.
Here, Lydia, a fetching, albeit supercilious Kristen Calgaro, falls in love with a poor army ensign, Beverley, portrayed by the handsome and robust Michael Sweeney Hammond. Given his lack of social position, Mrs. Malaprop forbids the courtship, insisting instead that Lydia fix her affections on another one of her many suitors. Meanwhile, Beverley, is really Captain Jack Absolute. And he is under strict orders to marry, in order to inherit his father, Sir Anthony Absolute’s, fortune. In that role, Jack Michalski is an unconventional seer – demanding of filial loyalty while he is himself oddly irreverent, and daring. A witty, sophisticated version of an upper-class hypocrite, he.
Bold intrigue, disguise and duplicity are colorfully wed in this positively delicious comedy. As helmed by Stephen Burdman, who also guided us on our Central Park walk the evening I attended the performance, the show feels intimate, despite the presentational manner in which it begins, with the actors talking to us rather than to one another. But the bucolic setting, the contemporary spirit of the story, and the friendly energetic actors make for a felicitous gathering. In fact, it is the only play I’ve been to where the audience actually gets bigger as the production proceeds. From a handful of audience members who were there from the beginning, a diverse group of passers-by joined, and then there were more of us, and more of us.
The Rivals ***
To follow the production at a park near you, and to find out where The Rivals will appear again, visit the company’s web site: http://www.newyorkclassical.org/the-rivals/.