FORT WORTH — Would you like to spend three hours in the 18th century?
Stage West is offering you that opportunity with its production of Irish-born, British-raised dramatist Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Rivals.
This comedy of bad manners hinges primarily on the unnecessarily complicated romance between Capt. Jack Absolute (Garret Storms) and Lydia Languish (Brett Warner Hurt). Their story should be a simple boy-meets-girl romp.
But in the clever, and often wicked, hands of Sheridan, the union of these young lovers gets snarled and tangled by a host of conniving characters who all think they have a dog in the fight. That is not at all the case, but before anyone figures that out, there is a series of subterfuges, misrepresentations, miscalculations and outright lies that fail so badly they are laughable.
Among those vexing Jack and Lydia are the former’s father, Sir Anthony Absolute (Cliff Stephens) and the latter’s guardian, the aptly named Mrs. Malaprop (Amber Devlin), who draws laughs for her frequent mistakes in grammar, word choice and pronunciation. Faukland (Nick Moore) and Julia Melville (Kelsey Milbourn) are a parallel pair of turtle doves who have troubles of their own. Bob Acres (Babakayode Ipaye) and Sir Lucius O’Trigger (Brandon Burrell) seem to be tossed in just to create more havoc.
There is plenty of witty writing and fine acting in this production, which also features splendid period costuming by Michael Robinson. Nearly all of the performances shine. Storms does well with a part that is a little bit different than most he has played at this theater. Hurt is a good match for him and is exceptionally consistent in carrying through her well thought out approach to her character. Stephens only has a few scenes that allow him to truly own the stage but they all absolutely crackle. Devlin has plenty of fun with her wacky, absurdly coifed character. Although she has little to do, Milbourn makes a fine impression.
But this is still an 18th century British comedy-- and it runs almost three hours. Those are major obstacles to overcome and, as laudable as it is to see any of our theaters presenting back-of-the-text theater history, this production doesn’t do enough to sell it to a 21st century audience.
Unfortunately, some of the efforts director Jim Covault makes to bridge that chasm of time and space between Sheridan and ourselves, backfire.
For example, the show is performed without accents. That makes it a bit more accessible (and easier to act), but it robs the text of its flavor. Part of the reason that British comedies entertain us so much is that the accents are funny to us.
The set for this show, designed by Covault is beautifully and cleverly done. But its sleek and barren look stands in sharp contrast to the fussy busyness of the plot and the costuming.
The real killer here, though, is the length, which this show achieves despite Covault’s generally brisk and kinetic direction. At a time when all performing arts groups are desperately trying to attract younger patrons, presenting three-hour shows that have the feel of having a test coming up afterwards may not be the best message for any theater to send.