‘The Rivals’

Collapsing Onstage

‘The Rivals’ Self-Destructs

By Daedalus Howell

WHEN A PLAY goes bad, theatergoers, like juries, patiently sit in judgment as the cast pleads its case. Such is the case with Actors Theatre’s dismal production of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Rivals, re-imagined as Deconstructing “The Rivals,” directed (as one would children at a crosswalk) by Joe Winkler. The verdict: we find the deconstruction guilty of tedium to the nth degree.

Framed as a play within a play being produced by the fictional Ironweed theater company, a reduced version of Sheridan’s original is set in the resort town of Bath. Lydia Languish (Dyan McBride) yearns to marry dashing, if destitute, young Beverly, who is actually the well-healed Captain Absolute (Argo Thompson), whose only motivation for the ruse seems to be for the sake of a predictable revelation.

Complications ensue when Lydia’s aunt, Mrs. Malaprop (Marjorie Crump-Shears), threatens to disinherit her if she does not give up Beverly for Captain Absolute. Two other suitors–Bob Acres, played by Dennis O’Brien, and a cartoonish Irishman, Sir Lucius O’Trigger (Jereme Anglin)–also come into the fold. A duel looms. Yeah-ho.

The play-within-a-play conceit wears so thin after 10 minutes that one will peer through the hole seeking escape but see only the bottomless pit that is the remaining 140 minutes of the play. And audiences will come to dread the innumerable plot complications since they serve only to prolong the resolution.

The most interesting part of Deconstructing “The Rivals” occurs as the audience is still being seated: actors mill about onstage trying desperately to seem as if they’re not acting (which is about as effective as asking a fish in a bowl not to act fishy) and performing various calisthenics or, in the case of Anglin, some rather showy acrobatics. Thompson does an apt impersonation of David Carradine of Kung Fu fame.

A Saturday Night Fever reference (actors cavort onstage in ’70s duds, singing “Stayin’ Alive”) falls so flat that it appears to exist in only two dimensions. Another character indicts the farce for not properly evoking the tenets of theorist Jacques Derrida’s lit-crit blather–an invocation that would give post-structuralist scribes a hard-on, but, alas, they’re too obscure to show up.

Of those theatergoers who did show, it should be noted that a half-dozen or so were asleep–that is, those who remained after the eternally belated intermission. Had the break come any later, I would have been drafting a suicide note rather than this review.

As for the performances, all the actors are talented and deserve to be in a real play. Breakout performances include Thompson’s endearingly roguish Absolute and AT newcomer O’Brien’s electrically charged Acres.

Otherwise, it’s going, going, gone–the play is sold long for an utterly insane ticket price of $18! An experiment in anti-theater should come with an anti-ticket price. But, alas, this show is theater for theater-people. Unfortunately, audiences are generally comprised of (jeepers!) audience-people.

To those loyal to AT’s usually excellent works, this production will feel like a betrayal. One sincerely hopes this production does not betoken a season of treason.

From the October 12-18, 2000 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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