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Photo by Darcy HoganThe 18th century saw England's transformation from embattled island into rapacious world-straddling empire where the sun never set and the blood never stopped flowing. But the theater of the time was, if not the darkest in English history, the most boring. The rise of the middle class, the attendant fascination with profit and utilitarian philosophy—along with a moral backlash against the perceived vulgarity of the Elizabethan and Restoration theater—produced a mountain of forgettable plays that almost overshadowed the rising coal heaps of Newcastle.
Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751-1816) stands above the cloying writers of his age, and The Rivals, produced here by the Insurgo Theater Movement, is a sterling example of his work. Though filled with myriad subplots, the main attraction is the wooing of the ridiculously sentimental Lydia Languish, an obvious stereotype drafted from the ridiculously sentimental plays that prevailed in Sheridan's time. Determined to marry for love rather than money, Lydia (the suitably overwrought Jessica Beane) is madly in love with Ensign Beverly, a common sailor who is actually the aristocratic Jack Absolute (the suitably steadfast Jason Lythgoe), who, understanding Lydia's anti-establishment perversities, wooes her with his faux penury.
Director Darcy Hogan updates the piece with something like a 1920s American-gangster motif. That works on a visual level; rarely will you see a storefront theater with costumes as pro as this. But Hogan doesn't do enough to infuse Sheridan's material with the vitality and energy lacking in the wordy period script.
Hogan certainly appreciates the material, and pulling off a serviceable production of a 200-year-old play is an achievement in itself. But with the notable exception of Russ Marchand (who, as the hot-blooded Sir Lucius O'Trigger, has apparently been given free rein to improvise on anything), the cast seems content merely to deliver the words as written. That's not a criminal offense, but greater directorial freedom might go a long way toward making an already accessible production eminently entertaining.
What Sheridan really deserves is a good rewrite. From where I sat, a subplot involving Chey Kennedy as the lovestruck minor character Faulkland was the most engaging part of the show. Smitten mightily by Cupid's arrow, Faulkland pines deliriously for the return of his Julia (Jessica Hutchinson, proving once again she's one of the county's best young actors). Not merely enraptured by love, Faulkland is nearly insane with it: any hint that Julia isn't as tortured by their absence sends Faulkland into a vortex of doubt and frustration that doesn't slow even when she arrives. Every word of Julia's is a sign of her faltering affection; every action—or inaction—is a sign of betrayal.
It's vintage drama-queen stuff, and Kennedy throws himself into the role with gusto. But though very funny, the performance speaks across the centuries to the evergreen issue of relationships. The more passionately we love, the more risks we take—and the more twisted our view of reality becomes. Through Sheridan's words and Kennedy's performance, then, you get a different sense of what the rivals in The Rivalsmay be. It's that ongoing struggle between the greater and lesser angels of our natures, forces locked in agonizing battle between what we dream is true and what we fear is true. The problem is that neither dreaming nor fearing get anyone closer to truly knowing what is true.
The Rivals at the Insurgo Theater Movement, 4883 E. La Palma St., Ste. 506, Anaheim Hills, (714) 517-7798. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m. Through May 11. $12-$15.
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