- The Washington Times - Friday, September 5, 2003

If “The Rivals” were a dessert, it would be sorbet — fruity, light, sweet but with a tingle, more elegant and grown-up than ice cream.The production even looks like a frozen confection.

Designer Simon Higlett bathes the set in paint the color of buttercream, evoking the tony comforts of the resort town of Bath in the 18th century through handsome architectural flourishes. Costumer Robert Perdziola swathes the ladies in sumptuous gowns rendered in cool pistachio greens, lavenders and ice blues as ephemeral as sea foam. The elaborate wigs are like puffs of whipped cream.

There is nothing sticky or melting about the production. Director Keith Baxter maintains the astute airiness and fluff of his previous Shakespeare Theatre production, “The Country Wife,” and even eclipses it.

“The Rivals” is a rollicking entertainment that wittily satirizes human foibles that haven’t changed all that much since Richard Brinsley Sheridan wrote the play in 1775.

In Sheridan’s time, instead of being lobotomized by television, people were under the sway of books and novels.

Women were particularly susceptible, as evidenced by the character of Lydia Languish (Tessa Auberjonois), a well-to-do girl for whom a lot of reading is a dangerous thing.

She loves romances with such heated titles as “Delicate Distress,” “Peregrine Pickle” and “The Memoirs of a Lady.” These Harlequin Romance precursors are so potent that Lydia fancies herself living in one of them, and so only eloping with a handsome but poor man will do.

Her suitor, Captain Jack Absolute (Hank Stratton), wins her heart by pretending to be a naval officer of low rank named Beverley. “I think poverty with him will be so charming,” Lydia swoons, and you marvel at her willful naivete, not to mention her stupidity.

Lydia wants nothing more than to rankle her aunt, the language-mangling Mrs. Malaprop (Nancy Robinette), a proud, stuffy woman (clad in acres of ruffles, embroidery and frippery that make her look like an overdone window treatment) who would make Roget burn his Thesaurus in protest over her creative use of language.

“He is the very pineapple of politeness,” “She is as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile” and “Female punctuation forbids me to say more” are some of the many inadvertent howlers that tumble out of Mrs. Malaprop’s mouth — delivered with hearty comic earnestness by the scene-stealing Miss Robinette.

Yet Mrs. Malaprop (who is covertly conducting an epistolary romance of her own) has a plot up her frilly sleeve. She and Jack’s father, Sir Anthony Absolute (David Sabin), agree to marry Lydia off to his son, unaware that the two already have made each other’s acquaintance. The real world collides with the girly escapism of the bodice-ripper as Lydia debates if getting what she wants is in keeping with her outlandish fantasies. After all, torment — in the abstract — is so much more attuned to the romantic temperament.

The love story is more than a bit silly, but Miss Auberjonois (her blushy beauty as idealized as a Gainsborough portrait) and Mr. Stratton keep things from blowing away with their fine, grounded performances. Miss Auberjonois has an inspired scene in which she becomes briefly undone, and her affected mania reminds you of every over-the-top soap opera rolled into one.

Miss Robinette’s eager, quick-witted turn as Mrs. Malaprop is reason enough to take in “The Rivals,” but she is met moment for moment by Mr. Sabin’s hilarious portrayal of Sir Anthony Absolute. Many times, Sir Anthony is played as a pervy old goat, but Mr. Sabin makes him more lusty than lubricous. Cane notwithstanding, he nimbly dances with remembered joy at the very idea of what it was like to be young and in love. He also gives Sir Anthony a temper that blazes at the slightest provocation — he is like an old tea kettle constantly threatening to boil over.

The spreading pleasure of this production of “The Rivals” is that the entire ensemble cast gives its all. Daniel Breaker, who gave such a breakout performance last season in “The Silent Woman,” is sly and commanding as the valet Fag, and the servant Lucy, his counterpart in cheery deception, is well-played by Jenna Sokolowski.

As Julia, Noel True is a more compellingly solemn and wise contrast to her cousin Lydia, while her suitor, Faulkland (Romain Fruge), is delightfully maudlin in his efforts to see the bad side of everything. Floyd King also has some underplayed, inspired moments as the opportunistic Sir Lucius O’Trigger.

Summer may be over, but that does not mean we have to give up our sorbets. So indulge yourself with “The Rivals,” a refreshing treat from start to finish.

***1/2

WHAT: “The Rivals” by Richard Brinsley Sheridan

WHERE: Shakespeare Theatre, 450 Seventh St. NW

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays; 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through Oct. 19

TICKETS: $16 to $66

PHONE: 202/547-1122

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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