Aaron Posner wants to make you laugh. Directing American Players Theatre’s first play of the season — the 18th century comedy of manners The Rivals — Posner does not want staid, overeducated audiences to smirk with self-satisfaction because they recognize the humor of an arcane play on words. He wants everyone in the packed house up the hill to giggle, to belly laugh, and to lap up the funny in this centuries-old play by presenting it with the unbridled silliness of a pie in the face. Of course the jokes that are baked into the script are still there, but Posner and his extraordinary cast — full of APT core company members and exciting, less familiar faces — pull out all the stops to make a good play into a great time. With whimsical sound effects, plenty of sight gags and physical humor, and vaudevillian choral interludes, The Rivals’ cast is winking at the audience and urging us to laugh along from the start.
Once the character introductions are out of the way, the play sets up a variety of rivalries to fulfill the promise of the title, while it poses the question, “Do we do crazy things in order to find love, or does being in love make us do crazy things?” By showing us the antics of scheming lovers, matchmakers, go-betweens, misled suitors, and the consternation of both the upper class and the help, the play’s answer is probably both.
Honesty vs. subterfuge
The proposed match at the center of The Rivals concerns temperamental, bohemian Lydia Languish (an endlessly amusing Kelsey Brennan) and her debonair, humble and penniless love Ensign Beverly (the roguish Marcus Truschinski), who is actually the wealthy and well-bred Captain Jack Absolute in disguise. What starts as a pleasant fiction to woo an overly romantic-minded young woman turns into a large volume of false identities, half-truths and pretenses that Jack cannot maintain. Fortunately, truth wins the day.
Amidst all the silliness invented by would-be lovers to catch a mate, one betrothed pair actually has a serious argument on the subject of trust and honesty, one that catches audiences off guard with its modern feel. The prim and anxious Mr. Faulkland (a buttoned-up Ronald Román-Meléndez) has been promised Julia Melville (the articulate and compelling Phoebe González) but literally cannot believe his good fortune. He finds every opportunity to doubt his own worthiness in the match and to disbelieve the depth of Julia’s love, driving her to distraction. When he tries to find out the truth through trickery Julia finally snaps, proving that, as with all the other couples, honesty is the best road to happiness.
Country vs. city
Poor Bob Acres (a marvelously awkward Josh Krause) wants to be part of the fashionable summer scene in Bath, but he is consistently undone by his rural roots. Sporting clashing plaids, he clearly doesn’t know how to dress to fit in with the beautiful people. He complains that his feet don’t understand the French steps in the latest dances and his honor “oozes” right out of him when he is goaded into challenging a rival in love to a duel. As a harmless buffoon aping the manners of the elite, the result is more hilarity. In the delightful hands of Krause, Acres is well intentioned but tender-hearted; Jack Absolute’s rough hewn friend who is trying a bit too hard to put on some polish. Both his overcompensation and his cowardice are adorable.
Age vs. youth
There is the temptation for every parent or elder relation to tell the younger generation what to do, so their years of experience can benefit their youthful charges — usually to no avail. This is blissfully illustrated by David Daniel’s blustery military man Sir Anthony Absolute, arranging a suitable match for his playboy son Jack, and Mrs. Malaprop confining her niece Lydia to her room until the girl accepts the moneyed, socially suitable husband who has been chosen for her. While these plans succeed in spite of the elder family members intervening, another relationship is thwarted in a comment on age-appropriate affairs. Lydia’s lady’s maid Lucy (filled with smarts and self-satisfaction by Colleen Madden) reroutes love notes from the older Irish gentleman Sir Lucius O’Trigger (played with a jig in his step by James Ridge) to Mrs. Malaprop instead of her youthful charge, much to his chagrin.
Old vs. new
There is something inherently fun and transgressive about the 1920s, where Susan E. Mickey sets the play through her costume design. It’s a moment between worlds at the dawn of the modern age. The old guard still has notions of Victorian propriety, top hats and walking sticks, and uniformed servants in black and white. The younger generation has jazz and women’s suffrage, smartly tailored suits in bright colors and tangerine silk rompers covered with flowing wraps that float over the floor. Mickey’s color pallete swings from dark to light as the youth of the characters increases, signaling the end of one era and the beginning of a bright new one.
Mrs. Malaprop vs. the English language
The play The Rivals is the source of the word “malapropism,” which is the mistaken use of a word in place of a similar-sounding one, often with unintentionally amusing effect. As the irrepressible Mrs. Malaprop, Tracy Michelle Arnold uses all of her skill with heightened language to show why the character now has her own place in the dictionary; her creative and completely accidental substitutions of words, said with correct inflection and clear intention, is both confusing and hysterical. Language mix-ups permeate every judgemental pronouncement and exclamation of happiness or horror, as she unsuccessfully puts on airs by using a complicated word where a simple one would have sufficed. Arnold outdoes herself as the straight woman to her own punchlines, which only grow more ridiculous as the play goes on. Through it all she is “the very pineapple of politeness,” and “headstrong as an allegory on the banks of Nile.”
And a word about understudies. . .
As many professional theaters have acknowledged recently, both on Broadway and regionally, the show really would not go on without understudies. As we get used to dealing with COVID-19 as a part of everyday life instead of an emergency, theaters need to anticipate that members of the main cast will get sick and will be unable to perform. It used to be that understudies went on rarely, if at all. Now they are regularly filling in for leading roles.
But very few understudies expect to go on for another actor on opening night. Enter Kailey Azure Green, a performer brand new to APT this year, who is part of the intern company and assistant director on this production. In a small but essential role as the valet Hastings, Green executed their many entrances, bits of comic choreography, and wrangling of props with aplomb. It was absolutely delightful to see them shine onstage on very short notice in the first official show of the season — one that is as festooned with tiny details as it is filled with laughs.