A luscious slice of theater history is served up by PCPA Theaterfest with “The Rivals,” a “comedy of manners,” written in 1774 by Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Set in Bath, England, it takes a satirical swipe at the wealthy upper class of the time. The production, directed by Patricia M. Troxel, makes the most of the comic elements and embellishes the twisted plot with sumptuous costumes and a stunning set.
“The Rivals” are three suitors seeking the hand of Lydia Languish, a beautiful and wealthy young heiress. Lydia, played with sweet charm by Stephanie Philo, scorns the tradition of marriage arranged by proper families and longs for the kind of romance she reads about in romance novels, where love and adventure trump money matters.
Captain Jack Absolute decides to accommodate her by disguising himself as poverty-stricken Ensign Beverly and agreeing to elope and flee into the countryside. But if Lydia marries without the consent of her guardian, Mrs. Malaprop, she will forfeit her fortune.
Mrs. Malaprop is the character who makes this play a classic. She famously misuses words, using words that sound like what she means, but have much different meanings, for example, “ineffectual” for “intellectual.” The term malapropism endures today.
Kitty Balay, one of PCPA’s most charming actors, is delightful as Mrs. Malaprop, who tells Lydia to “illiterate” the ensign from her memory and says the problem is the natural consequence of teaching girls to read. Instead, she says, they should be taught ingenuity and artifice.
Meanwhile, Jack’s father, Sir Anthony Absolute, has secretly arranged a marriage for his son to none other than Lydia herself. He plans to take her estate and says, “If you take an estate, you take it with the livestock on it” (meaning a wife). Jack doesn’t know that the “livestock” is his own love, Lydia.
Erik Stein takes the role of the blustery Sir Anthony and runs with it, ranting and carrying on with hilarious dialogue and funny body language. It’s fun to laugh out loud and find all the others around you doing the same.
Quinn Mattfeld is excellent as Captain Jack, caught up in the twisted scenario while trying to retain the affection of the disappointed Lydia. The role starts out as a fairly straight one, but becomes more comic as he becomes embroiled in the romantic affairs of his friends and wannabe rivals.
Jack’s friend and colleague Faulkland is madly in love with Lydia’s cousin, Julia, but he is skeptical about her love for him, even when it seems obvious. His self-doubt is a running joke, and Tony Carter plays him as both sympathetic and frustrating. Andrea Hilbrant is Julia.
Evans Eden Jarnefeldt creates another comic character, Bob Acres, a rather dimwitted friend of Jack who also considers himself to be a suitor of Lydia. The third suitor, who eventually discovers he is writing love notes to the wrong woman, is Sir Lucius O’Trigger, a colorfully dressed and wigged Irishman who finally urges all the rivals to fight a duel. He is played wryly by Peter S. Hadres.
Jacqueline Hildebrand is cute as Lydia’s maid and confidant, and the other servants are all played with great good humor by Jeffrey Parker Boyce, Sean Peters, Paul Henry, Chrissi Erickson and Toby Tropper.
The elegant set, designed by Heidi Hoffer, is difficult to describe. A huge circular building with rows of lighted windows, it opens up to reveal interior rooms. It will be especially effective in the outdoor setting when the play moves to Solvang.
The costumes by Fred Deeben are opulent and seemingly authentic, with cinched waists, stiff petticoats and rich fabrics. The men’s outfits are also colorful, with striped stockings, waistcoats and wigs.
It’s been said that this was one of George Washington’s favorite plays, and it’s good to know that he had a sense of humor.