"The girl's as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile!" exclaims the befuddled Mrs. Malaprop, wreaking havoc on both the English language and her niece's romantic respirations in the hilariously convoluted course of "The Rivals," Richard Brinsley Sheridan's classic 1775 parody of English aristocratic morals and manners.
But Mrs. Malaprop's misapplied vocabulary is the audience's gain. For all the stagy artifice inherent in this kind of 18th-Century comedy, Sheridan's wit proves endearing and enduring in the Ensemble Theatre Company's stylish production, which frequently leaps the tall centuries in a single "zounds!"
Only a social class dedicated to the relentless pursuit of leisure could find time for the intricate plotting depicted here. Our hero, Capt. Absolute (Ventura resident Gary Best), must conceal his noble birth and woo his beloved Lydia Languish (Claudia Dunn) in the guise of a lower-ranking ensign, because of Languish's determination to indulge in a scandalous elopement. Her guardian aunt, the indefatigable Malaprop (Gretchen Evans) is determined to hoist on her a husband of suitable status, and to this purpose, she connives an arranged marriage with a nobleman's son, who turns out to be none other than our own Absolute. When his ruse is uncovered, he must face the rage of both aunt and niece (even though Lydia has herself employed deceptive tactics in the affair).
Meanwhile, a parallel subplot creates further complications for lovers Faulkland and Julia (Christopher Vore and Delta Giordano Morgan). In the end, both men find themselves committed to a series of duels through a compounded series of mistaken identities and intentions.
Amid all these levels of subterfuge, it's hard to believe anyone will be able to pair up for the requisite happy ending. It's only when they confront the prospect of real bloodshed that these men and women can look beyond their own eccentricities and relate to each other in a normal, heartfelt manner.
As Lydia, Dunn convincingly evokes the broadening of a spoiled, self-referential world view: Initially, she's infatuated with her projected image of the forbidden suitor but comes to love the real man. Similarly, Vore's Faulkland comes to recognize how his jealous suspicions, not Julia's behavior, have undermined their love.
The lead performances achieve their greatest power not in their broad comedy, but in their emotional conviction, and for the most part they're right on target. Even when Mrs. Malaprop's inadvertent linguistic dismemberments become the stuff guffaws are made of, Evans plays the part entirely in earnest, which makes it all the funnier. It's an ambidextrous performance that quite purloins the show.
There is some first-rate broad comedy among the supporting cast--especially Craig Taylor Peoples as the hopelessly oafish fop conned into a duel for Lydia's hand by Anthony Miratti's scheming reprobate O'Trigger. Yet they remain in the purely farcical realm, never achieving the depth of the more reined-in characters.
Overall, director Robert Weiss keeps the production moving at a brisk clip, a headlong plunge into the absurd. His lush set design, coupled with Kristine Doiel's remarkably detailed costumes, provoke the look and feel of the period with an accuracy usually found in larger venues: This is a thoroughly professional staging in every perpendicular.
Sometimes there's an over-reliance on the text to carry a scene, without the embellishments a more imaginative interpretation would bring to bear, as in the case of Absolute's manservant (Nicholas Hartog) who seems content with an affected recitation of the lines. But at its best, which is frequently, "The Rivals" is an energetic romp, an ideal way to set aside the grim headlines for a time.
Be forewarned, however: The clock strikes nigh on 11 ere the merriment abates and the theater discharges its crowd, so factor that into your travel plans.
WHERE AND WHEN
"The Rivals" continues Thursday through Sunday nights through March 9 at the Alhecama Theatre, 914 Santa Barbara St., Santa Barbara. Tickets are $12 on Thursday, $14 on Fridays and Saturdays, and $10 on Sundays. Call (805) 962-8606 for reservations or further information.