By Dale King
Those sometimes antic, but always creative student actors at Florida Atlantic University have come up with some truly entertaining shows the past couple of years. Many, including the current production, take audiences back to the days of late 18th-century England, when manners really mattered and gentlemen wooed ladies with charm, grace and occasional subterfuge.
Playing through Sunday at the Studio One Theatre on the Boca Raton campus is Richard Brinsely Sheridan’s The Rivals. The performance is strangely intriguing, and while sometimes difficult to follow, it gives student performers an excellent forum to sharpen their abilities to deal with shows from centuries past.
Stage performances of that era focused largely on the upper class, their wiles, guiles and whims. Plays of the period were spiked with doses of wit spread among the courtesans and ladies. History says that when Sheridan’s original show opened in 1775, it was received with such rancor that one actor was hit by a thrown apple. Sheridan went back to the drawing board and redrafted the production into a more appropriate version. Acceptance thereafter was widespread.
The student program is light, airy and easy on the eye and ear, with few surprises other than the finale, when everyone reveals his or her true identities and intentions.
After nearly two seasons of performing together, this talented troupe has become a well-heeled ensemble. Jean-Louis Baldet, the director, says the play is set in Bath, “the highly fashionable watering hole of the rich and famous.”
Baldet adds: “The entire action of the play takes place in a 12-hour period, which raises the stakes on the unrelenting comic plot which entangles four couples in a madcap rivalry.” A romantic rivalry, that is.
The action centers on two young lovers, Lydia Languish (Amanda Corbett) and Captain Jack Absolute (Zak Westfall). To court her, Jack pretends to be “Ensign Beverley,” a poor military officer. Lydia is captivated with the idea of eloping with a poor soldier in spite of objections from her guardian, Mrs. Malaprop (Rachel Finley), a moralistic widow.
Mrs. Malaprop is the chief comic figure here thanks to her continual misuse of words that sound like the things she intends to say, but which mean something completely different. (This play gave us the term “malapropism.”)
Another interesting character is Sir Anthony Absolute (Gray West), a rich baronet with a very short fuse, prone to becoming furious at the slightest provocation and with a habit of making decisions hastily. Sir Anthony wants to secure his son, the aforementioned Captain Jack, a fortune that will help bolster his social position. To this end, he meddles in his son’s life, telling him he must marry whomever he, Sir Anthony, chooses or else be disinherited.
Lydia has two other suitors: Bob Acres (Trayven Call), a somewhat buffoonish country gentleman, and Sir Lucius O’Trigger, (Manny Zaldivar), an impoverished Irishman who also has a bad temper. Sir Lucius pays Lydia’s conniving maid, Lucy (Tara Collandra) to carry love notes between him and Lydia (who uses the name “Delia”), but Lucy is swindling him. “Delia” is actually Mrs. Malaprop.
The play includes considerable banter among the loves and lover wannabes. Frustration, even ire, seems to mount among the characters, and a duel is proposed. At the dueling grounds, the pistol fight is canceled, but Jack is quite willing to fight Sir Lucius – and they draw swords. But not for long. The play’s finale resolves everything, and all the characters end up going to a party.
The Rivals has historic implications. It became a favorite of the royal family and crossed the Atlantic to the Colonies. It was said to be George Washington’s favorite play.
It requires a lot of talent to maintain an English accent and speak in such formal language for almost three hours, yet these young performers make it seem simple. Zaldivar is equally adept at sustaining a workmanlike Irish brogue.
Vocal/accent coach Kathryn Johnston also deserves credit.
The Rivals is one show where talent is pretty much divided equally among all performers. Corbett is first-rate as Lydia, who loves books and men – but perhaps not in that order. Finley is fine as Mrs. Malaprop. Her tricked-out vocabulary is subtle and not overdone, which plays well in this show that seems so filled with words.
Sean Patrick Gibbons comes up with some great scene-stealing moves that audiences enjoyed in FAU’s last play, The Government Inspector. He portrays Faulkland, a jealous and insecure suitor. His cohort from that previous production, Erin Williams, is superbly solicitous as the gentle and supportive maid, Dorothy.
Rounding out the cast are Om Jumarali as Fag, Captain Absolute’s manservant and Jessica Eaton as the kindhearted lady, Julia.
Plaudits are also in order for a great job by the costuming and makeup folks: Marina Wolfson, Paula Calvo, Roldane Plaisir, Amanda Corbett, Jessica Eaton, Rachel Finley, Gray West, Erin Williams and the students of Production Hour. Kudos also to costume designer Dawn Shamburger for creativity and adherence to authenticity.
The Rivals concludes its run with shows today at 2 and 7 and Sunday at 2 in the Studio One Theatre on the Boca Raton campus of FAU. Tickets are $22 and can be purchased at www.fauevents.com or by calling 1-800-564-9539.