There is still a bit of time to rush up to Spring Green, Wisconsin to see American Players Theatre’s smart, uproarious production of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s “The Rivals.” Rev your engine and aim for the sticks. Or should I say shticks? In my experience, Sheridan is most often produced on small intimate stages by small, worthy companies. Nothing kills comedy like worthiness. This version, directed by Aaron Posner, a veteran of many of the country’s most formidable classical stages, including Chicago Shakespeare and The Folger, is not that. Posner goes big with a cast of seasoned clowns who can stretch humor as broad as it can go without breaking. The magic is that they are clowns who live the parts. Wall-breaking mugging is not allowed. It also helps that APT’s large outdoor stage and the production’s exceedingly clever set give the physical comedy room to roam. Watch the seat cushions, for instance; they’re all but characters in the play.
Sheridan, an Irish Londoner, began as a comic playwright with this comedy of manners in 1775, two years before he penned the more famous “School for Scandal.” Nevertheless, it’s “The Rivals” that has burrowed deepest into the culture, thanks largely to the inspired character of Mrs. Malaprop, the ignorant but intellectually confident rich aunt who continually chooses words that sound like the ones she ought to use but miss the mark. The blunders lead to absurdities and they still get laughs. Among the malapropisms the appreciative audience at APT roared at were “She’s as headstrong as an allegory [alligator] on the banks of the Nile” and “I have since laid Sir Anthony’s preposition [proposition] before.” They keep coming, and like Henny Youngman jokes, resistance to the corniness wears away. Much credit for that goes to the actor in the role, Tracy Michelle Arnold, who physically and vocally is bungling, supercilious perfection. The vocal characterizations adopted by the cast are one of the comic thrills of the show, which must be due in part to the repertory company’s reliable bench of actors honed over multiple seasons as stage stooges. This is APT’s forty-third year and many in the cast have been with the troupe for over a decade. Then again, the program lists as the voice and text coach Eva Breneman, a frequent behind-the-scenes force at APT and Chicago stages.
The action is transported to Britain in the 1920s and the production makes the most of the period with luscious gowns, flapper dresses and sporty men’s clothes of the era. That includes at least one outrageous plaid suit that seems to wear its owner—Bob Acres played by the inexhaustible, funny Josh Krause—and which seems to drive a lightning-quick Charleston for him. The play’s 1920s setting gives it some extra jazzy verve but keeps it within the bounds of a period where the manners and mores still make sense. The plot revolves around Mrs. Malaprop’s niece Lydia and her trio of suitors. Lydia reads pot-boiling romances and deems that her true love ought to be a man of low station who whisks her off to romantic adventure. Guess what? Did you say “mistaken identity plot?” The man who loves Lydia best, Captain Jack Absolute, is an aristocrat who feigns he’s a commoner. You’ve probably written the rest in your head. No matter. It’s the characters and their misunderstandings and foolishness that drive things. Add in the beautiful setting of APT’s outdoor theater, the great cast, an endless succession of big and small comic bits, wonderful sound design with clever effects and a lively audience and you should already be on your way up north.
“The Rivals” at American Players Theatre, 5950 Golf Course Road, Spring Green, Wisconsin, (608)588-2361, americanplayers.org. Through September 17.