Reviving ‘The Rivals’

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Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s “The Rivals” is one of the oldest English comedies still regularly performed. (Photo: Rochester Community Players)

The Irish literary and dramatic tradition is remarkably rich for such a small country, observes Jean Gordon Ryon.

That tradition, which includes James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, John Millington Synge, and Bernard Shaw, dramatist Eugene O’Neill, and such contemporary writers as Conor McPherson, has found a local voice in the Rochester Community Players’ Irish Program.

The Irish Program’s 2024 production is one of the oldest English comedies still regularly performed, Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s “The Rivals.” It opens tonight and continues until April 6 at the Multi-Use Community Cultural Center.

The Rochester Community Players has performed for almost a century; a program focusing on Irish plays was established in 1997. Before the pandemic, the RCP Irish Program brought its annual productions to the Acting Irish International Theatre Festival, where it has won several awards. The festivals were held in different cities, which necessitated small-scale, small-cast productions, often of intense dramas.

But the acting Irish festivals have not been held since the pandemic, and being forced to stay put in Rochester led Ryon, who has directed those award-winning productions, to try something different.

 “I thought it would be fun to look back at an older Irish play, but a comedy this time – and since we didn’t have to travel with it, we could do something with a large cast and involve a lot of people,” Ryon says.

Sheridan’s “The Rivals,” first produced in London in 1775, fills the bill. Its author was Dublin-born, and his play is a classic knockabout farce that follows a characteristic formula: take a lot of colorful characters with various romantic and social agendas, put them in an interesting setting, and let them tangle with each other until a happy ending untangles them.

Sheridan chose a daringly contemporary setting: the English seaside resort city of Bath, a wide-open playground for the 18th-century rich and famous, their wannabes, and their assorted scandals. (An equivalent today might be a Woody Allen movie set in Palm Springs or Aspen.)

According to its director and cast members, “The Rivals”may be almost 250 years old, but it wears its centuries lightly. Ryon has accomplished this in part by moving the original 18th-century setting to the 1920s.

“Both these periods were marked by conflicts between the older generation and the younger generation, who represented a new world and a new set of behaviors,” the director explains. “And in 1920s England, that class structure was still very much intact and very hierarchical. People still had servants, for example, and it was difficult to cross class lines.”

The play’s farcical humor and romantic situations, however, remained in style. Ryon found that updating details, like military titles and the names of popular period novels, was all that was necessary to make The Rivals work for a 2024 audience.

One thing the company strives not to maintain is an 18th-century acting style, which a modern audience would find hammy and stiff.

“Actors did a lot of ‘stand-and deliver’ back then,” Ryon explains.

But the play’s large cast, which includes many familiar and favorite Rochester actors, is adept at highlighting Sheridan’s verbal and physical humor.

Two of the most famous, and funniest, roles are representatives of the older generation. John Jaeger plays a blowhard aristocrat named Sir Anthony Absolute, bent on getting his son married in the upper class; Vicki Casarett is Mrs. Malaprop, a busybody who delights in showing off her elaborate, and frequently incorrect, vocabulary.

For example, she calls one character “the very pineapple of politeness,” and later advises, “We will not anticipate the past, our retrospection will be all to the future.” (After the character appeared in “The Rivals, such errors were inevitably called malapropisms.)

Both veteran actors have a history in classical roles, and neither of them find Sheridan’s dense, witty language a stumbling-block. And both of them love their characters.

“Sir Anthony’s a control freak and always spouting politically incorrect comments,” says Jaeger. “At one point his son calls him ‘plaguey gruff.’ I love saying all those outrageous things – and waiting for the audience reaction.”

Casarett recalls of Mrs. Malaprop, “I read ‘The Rivals,’ in college and said to myself, ‘Someday I will play that role.’”

She adds that her speeches, in which she is constantly called upon to misuse words, can be tricky to deliver.

“At one rehearsal Jean interrupted me to say, ‘You’re using the right words again, Vicki, be sure to use the wrong words!’”

David Raymond is a Rochester-area freelance writer. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected]

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