On New Year's Day, 1812, Walnut Street Theatre (then the Olympic) presented an incredible evening of entertainment. Splendid equestrian acts . . . LaConti, "Clown to the King" ... even a musical farce. But the highlight was Richard Sheridan's hilarious hit The Rivals, the first full length play staged here.
This season, the Walnut again presents this classic comedy, (March 1-April 13) with a few changes to make the play even more enjoyable for today's audience. The newest production of The Rivals will stand on its own, no horsemen or clowns needed!
Sheridan set The Rivals in the 1770s, but Walnut Executive Director Bernard Havard and Derby Artistic Director Mark Clements moved the story to the Roaring 1920s. "This is a wonderful opportunity to do something really different," said Mark Clements. "Moving the play to the 1920s makes it more accessible, adds a little zest." The intriguing location, a chic spa in Bath, England, remains the same.
The Rivals is a co-production with Derby Playhouse in England (about 110 miles northwest of London) where Clements has earned acclaim as artistic director. The cast is a blend of American and British actors, each playing a character with whom he shares nationality. The design team is a combination of Americans and Brits as well.
The leading lady in the original version of The Rivals was a British heiress named Lydia Languish, who visits Bath with her aunt, Mrs. Malaprop. Clements said Lydia translates perfectly into a 1920s American debutante searching for a husband. Mrs. Malaprop easily becomes a hilarious American pretender to high society. In the original, she's an English woman with a knack for verbal blunders. But as an American, she could be even funnier, a wildly eccentric American among the staid British gentry. Mrs. Malaprop will be played by Millicent Martin, an internationally known actress who last appeared at the Walnut in 1991 in Shirley Valentine.
Clements, who recently staged an updated version of Richard III, said classic plays can be modernized successfully. His goal is to add a new dimension to the classic, helping to keep theatre alive and relevant.
The Rivalswas hastily written in 1774. Sheridan (1751-1816) was a young, newlywed attorney looking for quick cash. His mother had earned a living writing plays, so Sheridan decided to give it a try.
Sheridan used The Rivals to protest the sentimental comedies of his day which preached morality: the good were rewarded, the bad punished. He favored the wit of Restoration comedy to expose human folly, and closely allied himself with Oliver Goldsmith, author of She Stoops to Conquer. Sheridan and Goldsmith's plays rely on comic situations, characters and dialogue for humor. Although the plots are often complex, individual scenes can be enjoyed for themselves, not just for how they fit into the action of the play.
The Rivalswas first produced in January, 1775, at Covent Garden. The production ran too long for the audience's liking. Sir Anthony Absolute, a misogynist, and Sir Lucius O'Trigger, an obvious fortune hunter, were so disliked, the actors found themselves being pelted with fruit!
That production closed after one night. Sheridan revised his script and recast the show all in just 11 days! When it reopened, The Rivals was a big hit, full of the enthusiasm of a young playwright who enjoyed life and found humor in the foibles of humanity.
Tickets for The Rivalsare now on sale. Call (215) 574-3550, ext. 4.
-- By Maria E. Sticco