Thesaurus-required theater

The Jungle Theater presents ‘The Rivals,’ a play loaded with verbiage

Matt Graham

Whether or not you like “The Rivals,” Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s 1775 comedy of manners, will depend largely on your sense of humor. And your vocabulary.

If you want clear-cut, modern dialogue, stay away. But if your idea of funny is an aging woman named of Mrs. Malaprop (Claudia Wilkens) who bungles through the play using words like “geometry,” “superstitious” and “malevolence” instead of “geography,” “supercilious” and “benevolence,” then this is the show for you.

“The Rivals”
WHEN: 7:30 p.m., 8 p.m., and 2 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday
WHERE: The Jungle Theater, 2951 Lyndale Ave. S., Minneapolis
TICKETS: $22-$34, (612) 822-7063, jungletheater.com

“The Rivals,” directed by John Clark Donahue, is the story of two upper class 18th century British families. Mrs. Malaprop has arranged for the marriage of her niece, Lydia Languish (Amber Nicolette Swenson), to Captain Jack Absolute (recent University graduate Robin Everson), through a deal with his father.

When Sir Anthony Absolute (Allen Hamilton) tells his son of the arrangement, Jack refuses to take part, even at the threat of being disowned. But when he finds out his betrothed is the same woman he has been seeing under the guise of Ensign Beverley, he concocts a scheme to fool his father into thinking he has never seen Lydia before, while not letting on to her that he isn’t who he has pretended to be.

When Jack’s ruse fails, Sir Anthony takes it all in stride, appreciative of his son’s B.S.-ing abilities. But Lydia, an avid reader of romance novels, refuses to talk to Jack once she is deprived of the prospect of romantically eloping with a poor commoner.

Meanwhile Jack’s friend, the “whimsical” Faulkland (Ryan Kathman), keeps messing up his relationship with his fiancée Julia (Andrea Leap) because he doesn’t trust that she loves him. Jack’s other friend Acres (Dave Gangler), a longtime suitor to Lydia, decides he wants to duel this Ensign Beverley character who has stolen her heart away. As if this weren’t enough, cranky Irishman Sir Lucius O’Trigger, who has been mistakenly sending love letters intended for Lydia to the aged, hefty Mrs. Malaprop, wants to fight Jack for the young lady’s hand.

Though there’s never any doubt that everything will work out at the end, the humor in “The Rivals” emerges from all the dramatic irony it takes to get there, as well as the wittily poetic, if archaic, language.

Because nothing in the play has been modernized, a lot rides on the production’s sharply attired cast. They come through, nailing their dense verbiage without a hitch while imbuing the potentially flat stock characters with a full sense of life.

Wilkens and Hamilton, the veterans of the cast, are imposing on stage with their large figures and booming voices, and provide most of the play’s laughs. Hamilton’s nicotine-stained pipes are perfect for his lewd old man, while Wilkens’ perpetually confused character is so ridiculous, looking like some stereotypical operatic fat lady, that it’s impossible not to laugh at her hypocritical vanities.

The young’uns of the cast are almost as good. Everson is entirely believable as the arrogant nobleman, as is Gangler as his uncouth friend. Kathman is especially good as Faulkland, with the kind of natural comedic timing in voice and gesture that can’t be taught.

Still, the play does drag at times. The musical interludes, replete with harpsichord, are mostly tedious, and it does get hard at times to follow what’s being said on the stage.

Fortunately, each of the play’s scenes begins with a brief synopsis of what’s to follow, allowing even the illiterate audience members to keep up with the action.

If you aren’t sure what a dictionary’s for, then stay away from this one. But there is a reason this play is still being performed 225 years after the fact. Comedy tends to age faster than tragedy, but “The Rivals’ ” clever dialogue, twisting plot and cunningly crafted situations have the mark of true humor, funny in any era.