The greatest comic playwright to grace the English stage in the less-than-fertile period between Shakespeare's fantastical exit and Shaw's boisterous entrance, Richard Brinsley Sheridan was a dramatist of great-hearted humanity, sharp insight and exquisite wit. A gifted orator whose political opinions were prohibited full dramatic expression--Britain's Licensing Act of 1737 established an office of theatrical censorship that lasted for 231 years--Sheridan wrote three major comedies and a comic opera before becoming a member of Parliament in 1780 and taking an active role in, of all things, the impeachment proceedings of Warren Hastings. With any luck, the Irish wordsmith lent his storied sense of humor to a matter that, if recent senatorial droning is any indication, was likely a tedious affair.
Fortunately for local theatergoers, Sheridan's The Rivals is awash with levity and satire. The 1775 comedy is being presented at the Stage Theatre by the Denver Center Theatre Company in a new production adapted and directed by Elizabeth Huddle, with songs and incidental music composed by Peter Schickele (of P.D.Q. Bach fame) and performed by six pit musicians led by conductor-harpsichordist Karl Mansfield. Although the lion's share of Schickele's impish musical numbers, while mildly entertaining, add little to Sheridan's florid original (often, they're merely in the way of a good story instead of serving as an evocative complement), the beautifully designed, well-acted, well-spoken and mostly well-sung production proves a mirthful evening of romantic intrigue.
The near-three-hour show is propelled by the crowd-pleasing antics of Kathleen M. Brady, whose endearing portrayal of the misspeaking Mrs. Malaprop effectively reduces the English language to comic smithereens. (In honor of Sheridan's most famous character, comical confusions of words have long been termed "malapropisms.") Parading about the stage with a five-foot string of giant clam-sized pearls bouncing atop her mountainous decolletage--and, at times, trailing behind her by a full half-second--the talented comedienne consistently earns generous laughter when she assuredly intones such mangled pronouncements as "He is the very pineapple of politeness" and "Female punctuation forbids me to say more." She also delivers a jazzed-up version (for the eighteenth century, anyway) of the production's only song of note, swooning and gyrating as she alternately coos and belts out Mrs. Malaprop's passion for the roguish--and "luscious" Sir Lucius O'Trigger (Robert Sicular).
Most of the performers display a firm command of an acting style that's in keeping with Sheridan's relaxed comedy of manners. Penned as both an antidote and an homage to the high Restoration comedies of Congreve and Wycherley (with an assortment of Shakespearean references thrown in as good-natured jabs), Sheridan's plays work best when actors combine superb vocal and movement skills with an ease in conveying their characters' down-and-dirty humanity: a clipped British accent and a graceful bearing will get you only so far in plays that routinely champion a rake's progress over his pedigree. Stepping forth as if lifted directly from the canvas of a Hogarth painting, most in the company exude an appropriately mannered ribaldry. (The frothy atmosphere is also enhanced by Robert Morgan's sumptuous costumes and a few Fragonard-like oval miniatures that dot Michael Ganio's handsome Georgian set--which, apart from a couple of steep ramps that clumsily empty into the theater's twin vomitoria, is playfully serviceable.)
In that spirit, Daniel Reichert makes the most of the essentially plot-forwarding role of Faulkland, rendering a marvelous portrayal of the eternally insecure lover for whom the slightest everyday mishap portends apocalyptic tragedy. His delicate fingers forming a tiny fist that occasionally rests on one side of his quivering mouth, Reichert elicits chuckles when Faulkland anxiously declares that "some shower may have chilled [the] delicate frame" of his lover, Julia (Gloria Biegler). Bruce Turk employs a few prancing paroxysms of wordless self-satisfaction in his nimble and deft portrayal of the servant Fag. As the philandering father figure, Sir Anthony Absolute, stalwart character actor Randy Moore mixes well-intentioned bluster with sheepish mischief ("You know I am compliance itself," he says calmly before bellowing, "when I am not thwarted!"). And Robert Westenberg and Susan Spencer deliver multi-faceted, expertly sung portrayals as Captain Jack Absolute and the servant Lucy, respectively.
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To be sure, some of Huddle's nipping and tucking of the script, as well as most of Schickele's lukewarm musical interruptions, have the effect of making this production more of a bumpy ride than the playwright perhaps intended. And a couple of portrayals, particularly Mark McCarthy's lightweight Bob Acres (whose woefully un-courant hairdo is a hoot) and Suzanne Bouchard's shrill Lydia Languish, merely skim the brilliantine surface of their characters' considerable comic reservoirs. Still, as the performers harmonize during the show's pleasant finale, the production's nagging flaws--much like the wayward character of Jack Absolute himself--somehow mend surprisingly well.
The Rivals, through February 20 at the Stage Theatre, in the Helen Bonfils Theatre Complex at 14th and Curtis streets, 303-893-4100.