Review: The Rivals by Weird City Theatre
by Michael Meigs

Here's what I like about John Carroll and the Weird City Theatre Company: they have a sense of fun that's irreverent and modern, but they take their drama seriously. 

Necessarily low-rent but not sloppy, the company performs with energy, confidence, and an appreciation for the text, whatever it might be. They have a taste for pop -- we've seen an adaptation of Night of the Living Dead, a faithful production of William Gillette's Sherlock Holmes, and around Halloween we'll get their take on Nosferatu, F.W. Murnau's 1921 unathorized film version of Dracula.

Richard Brinsley Sheridan's The Rivals from 1775 is pop of a different sort. Sheridan, born into a theatrical family and married for love. The success at Covent Garden of this, his first play, spurred him to buy out Garrick's Drury Lane and subsequently to run successfully for Parliament. It's a comedy of manners in which Jack, an aristocratic military officer, disguises his well born origins in order to court Miss Lydia Languish, a dizzy heiress beguiled by popular novels and intent on forfeiting her ample trust fund by marrying poor, for love.


Michael Covey as Jack Absolute (ALT photo)

Love makes just about everyone dizzy in this piece. Jack's friend Faulkland just can't believe that his betrothed Julia is really true to him and keeps testing her. The prancing Bob Acres adores Lydia but hasn't a chance. Sir Lucius O'Trigger carries on an epistolary campaign to win the hand of "Delia," but has no idea that his correspondent is not Julia but rather her bubble-headed guardian Mrs. Malaprop. Lucy the serving girl is making money from all these aspiring romantics, delivering their epistles or selling their secrets as it pleases her.


ody Barton as Faulkland, Patti Neff-Tiven as Julia (ALT photo)Almost all except our hero Jack Absolute are either deluded or self-deluded, and that includes Jack's harrumphing papa Sir Anthony Absolute. 

Such foolishness is timeless. Carroll and company situate these rivals in a pop trans-Atlantic 1980s with a happy wash of disco, Valley girl talk, roller skates, and clothing styles that seem perishingly retro to us. The cast does their curtain call as a kind of hully-gully to "Shout" by Tears for Fears. 

Some of it's silly -- Jack's now a captain of a football team instead of an army, and he twiddles a bit with a football to remind us. But it works. The adaptations do no violence to Sheridan's text or plot. They retain the vigor of the piece while winking at fads and foibles so ancient that most of the cast probably become aware of them in grammar school. Anyone older than that could find them even more amusing.

Michael Covey as Jack Absolute carries himself with seriousness and good humor, putting up with the caprices of those around him. Particularly those of his father Sir Anthony, played by Robert L. Berry as a resounding, good-hearted nit in yellow shirt and bermuda shorts. 

Kevin Gouldthorpe as Bob Acres (ALT photo)Kevin Gouldthorpe as the swishy but sincere would-be suitor Bob Acres is an appealing fool, credulous and confiding.  


Bethany Harbaugh as Lucy (ALT photo)Of the women in the piece, the most memorable are saucy Lucy the serving wench (Bethany Harbaugh), wheeling about on her roller skates, and Julia, Faulkland's betrothed, with her no-nonsense attitude. Patti Neff-Tiven as Julia is one of the few non-fools in this piece and she will certainly be making the hard decisions once she and Faulkland get married.

The dénouement of The Rivals comes at the scene of a duel -- or rather, two duels -- that have been engineered against Jack by the scheming Lucius O'Trigger. John Smith as O'Trigger is appropriately ill-tempered throughout, but the characterization is seriously hindered by the decision to have him wear sunglasses through much of the play. A frantic confession by Jack's servant Fag (Riley Johnson) brings the whole cast racing to King's Meade fields in time for the revelations and unmaskings that put the whole plot right.

Amelia Turner as Lydia Languish, Jenni Bauer as Mrs. Malaprop (ALT photo)




Jenni Bauer plays Mrs. Malaprop with confidence and fine goofiness, marking her as clearly destined to wind up with Sir Anthony, her equal in carefree foolishness. 


Ribert L. Berry as Sir Anthony Absolute
One unfortunate aspect of the Weird City production is the undermining of Mrs. Malaprop, one of the stage's most memorable creations. In a piece that jokes about the perils of literature and education, Mrs. Malaprop serves as the epitome of overblown, underliterate aristocracy. 


Sheridan's running gag of making her choose exquisitely erudite but completely wrong words gave us the very term "malapropism." From her very first exchanges with Lydia her ward, Mrs. Malaprop is putting her exquisitely booted foot into her mouth:

Madam, I thought you once----

You thought, miss! I don't know any business you have to think at all--thought does not become a young woman. But the point we would request of you is, that you will promise to forget this fellow--to illiterate him, I say, quite from your memory.

[ . . . . ]

What crime, madam, have I committed, to be treated thus?

Now don't attempt to extirpate yourself from the matter; you know I have proof controvertible of it.--But tell me, will you promise to do as you're bid? Will you take a husband of your friends' choosing?


For this clever comedy to work, both director and actor have to set it up in these very first exchanges -- Mrs. Malaprop should ceremoniously present those wonderfully wrong word choices with great and prideful clarity, as if they were sugar buns on a silver salver. 

Each of her many subsequent malapropisms should be special and distinct. If these lines are delivered in normal rhythm, many in the audience miss the technique and the jokes entirely -- particularly since for the most part these are three- or four-syllable latinate word choices. 

I had aimed to get to an early performance of this production of The Rivals, but visitors, a trip and a scheduling glitch meant that I didn't make it until the closing show. The performances were polished, the laughs were there, and I had a good time.




Review by Hannah Kenah in the Austin Chronicle, July 24 

Review by Ryan E. Johnson at, July 21





Click for program from The Rivals by Weird City Theatre Company



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The Rivals
by Richard Brinsley Sheridan
Weird City Theatre

July 16 - July 26, 2009
Dougherty Arts Center
1110 Barton Springs Road
Austin, TX, 78704