BWW Review: Not much Sticks in Seattle Shakespeare Company's THE RIVALS
While viewing the opening night of Seattle Shakespeare Company's production of Richard Brinsley Sheridan's "The Rivals", one old adage kept springing to mind. "Throw it against the wall and see if it sticks." Well, aside from a few standout performances, not much stuck. But that wasn't from lack of trying as director George Mount seemed to throw everything but the kitchen sink at that wall whether it fit within the play or not.
"The Rivals" is a "comedy of manners" sometimes known as Restoration Comedies, where people attempt to behave properly but typically let their love and desire get in their way. Here we center on Captain Jack Absolute and his love Lydia (Avery Clark and Alexandria J. Henderson). The two are madly in love but the overly romantic Lydia only knows Absolute as Ensign Beverly. She wants the penniless ensign to sweep her off her feet and elope and so Absolute has taken on the character to woo her. Meanwhile his father, Sir Anthony (Bradford Farwell) and her Aunt, Mrs. Malaprop (Julie Briskman), want their two charges to marry, but how will Jack let Lydia know he's not Beverly? Meanwhile there are two other suitors, Jack's friend, Bob Acres, (Lamar Legend), who has heard of Beverly and hates him for wooing the object of his affection, and Sir Lucius O'Trigger (Mike Dooly), who thinks he's been passing love notes to Lydia but the scheming maid Lucy (Sophia Franzella), has been passing them on to Mrs. Malaprop. Confused? So was I. I only got most of this from reading Wikipedia as the show was so convoluted that at intermission I looked to my companion and asked, "Do you know what's going on?" He did not as well.
Beyond throwing every bit imaginable onto the stage (which we'll get to in a minute), the show suffers from several issues. First off, it's super long and goes in circles. At over three hours, the scenes beat their jokes into the ground. There's a B plot line of Jack's friend Faulkland (Calder Jameson Shilling) and Lydia's friend Julia (Jocelyn Maher) having an on again, off again fight because Faulkland can't decide if he trusts her. It goes on for days as he repeatedly talks himself into and out of misery. This could have been funny, but it wasn't, just long.
Then there's the language and the accents. As with Shakespeare, it can sometimes be difficult to get into the language. A good production can transcend the language and make everything crystal clear. Here, not only was everything not clear, but the actors kept incorporating incredibly thick accents, only leading to further confusion. Accents, I might add, that kept changing.
But aside from all that, the biggest nail in the theatrical coffin for me was the insistence of adding bits to the show. Bits that made no sense. At the top of the show they make a point of dragging in an "audience member" (Shanna Allman) to play some of the parts. She kept showing up, not knowing where to go, or with a script in hand and messing things up. It lent nothing to the story and just made everything look messy. And it wasn't just her as they kept breaking the fourth wall, reminding us that this is a play by handling things clumsily, but that has nothing to do with the show.
Then there were the anachronisms. They kept shoving bits of modern day pop culture into the script. Out of nowhere a character would start humming a recognizable tune or do a Michael Jackson dance and it just came across as self-indulgent like they thought this was hilarious in rehearsals, but it was an inside joke. I would say they threw everything in there except a musical number, but they did that too, more than once. The end of the show features a completely out of place, tacked on, superfluous, pandering, and ridiculous song and dance number complete with flashing lights, like at a dance club or concert, to the tunes "Rock Me Amadeus" (I guess because it's set in the same era even though Amadeus has nothing to do with the show) and Whitney Houston's "I Wanna Dance With Somebody" (I assume so Henderson can sing something). But this constant adding in bits and throwing more and more things at the wall just screamed to me of a production that didn't know how to make the story interesting, so they just kept adding to it to distract the audience. And you wonder why it was over three hours.
There are a few funny elements. Briskman as Mrs. Malaprop, with her habit of using the wrong words that sound like what she means, slayed. But then Briskman always slays. Same for Farwell who's overly insistent father was a delight. And Franzella was fun as the scheming Lucy but whenever she dropped her daffy façade, her accent also changed which made little sense. But those few moments didn't make up for the lengthy moments of repetition and confusion surrounding them.
The show is well intentioned and I'm sure they thought they were being clever, but you know what the road to hell is paved with. And so, with my three-letter rating system, I give Seattle Shakespeare Company's production of "The Rivals" an "I'm sorry, now who is this character and what are they saying?" NAH. You can update an old comedy with some new bits and make it work like they did with last season's "She Stoops to Conquer" but you need to be able to tell the core story first and then the added bits need to make sense in the world.
"The Rivals" from Seattle Shakespeare Company performs at the Center Theatre through February 2nd. For tickets or information contact the Seattle Shakespeare Company box office at 206-733-8222 or visit them online at www.seattleshakespeare.org.