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'The Rivals' shines, unmatched, at Merle Reskin

By Alec Moran
On April 20, 2012

After a 20-year absence from the DePaul Theatre School, "The Rivals" recently concluded a two-week run at the Merle Reskin Theatre.

And as that final curtain closes, all involved in the production should rest knowing they crafted a lively, memorable and altogether hilarious staging of Richard Brinsley Sheridan's classic. Indeed, it was a team effort, as it seems that so many facets of the production had a hand in the show's hilarity.

George Washington listed "The Rivals" as his favorite play. First performed in 1775, the play is a comedy that is by certain measures old, yet the humor of it holds up to modern standards. Set in 18th century Bath, England, the play follows a group of upper-class English people as they deal with the social codes of the era. The show starts with a fast pace, combining quick, witty wordplay with bawdy physical humor - half Shakespeare, half Farrelly Brothers.

The cast in its entirety deserves great praise for "The Rivals." Watching the performance, it is readily apparent the cast throughout is filled with skilled comedic actors whose talents coalesce to create a performance of both high and low comedy, where each role is unique, inspired and satisfying.

Julian Hester, in his role as Captain Jack Absolute, was particularly brilliant. The role calls for him to be paired with so many other characters that any actor portraying Absolute must have a great comedic range - and Hester does not disappoint. Whether it is from his excellent verbal comedic timing or his gymnastic physical comedy talents, Hester prevailed in a demanding role.

I also highlight Adam Brown in the role of Faulkland. Brown possesses the special ability to garner laughs with only a look or a pout to the audience.

This isn't to say that his larger efforts weren't equally as remarkable - his rapport with the band was memorable, as Faulkland forces it to play somber music over and over for a botched reconciliation.

Brown further showed a knack for improvisation. For example, in one scene a length of rope he was carrying became stuck under the frame of the door he needed to exit from. Brown transformed a potentially awkward moment into even more laughs by yanking with great effort at the rope until it became dislodged. Brown never missed a beat.

I would be remiss if I did not mention the costumes in "The Rivals," crafted by Sarah Jo White, who made her main stage costume design debut with this play. And it is a debut that shows great attention to detail, clarity of vision, and vast imagination.

White's costumes, tailored with bright colors, rich textures and lively patterns, are characters themselves in the play - especially the dress worn by Mrs. Malaprop: a bright red, double-wide number broad enough to display a woodland tableau surrounded by three-dimensional flowers. The costume design stands as another element of the production adding to the overall comedy.

The production also features a four-piece band playing from a box on the side of the theater.

The original script of the play does not call for a band, but the addition of one, along with the clever scene transitions of the production and a sharp edit of the script, stand as great additions by the show's director, Catherine Weidner.

From the authentic score, composed specifically for this DePaul production, to the small sound effects that accentuate certain jokes on stage, this version of "The Rivals" would feel totally different and perhaps a little empty without the musical talents - and occasional comic chops - of the band.

If anything, this most recent production of "The Rivals" showed that even though years pass and times change, sometimes funny doesn't. However, it sure doesn't hurt when you have a cast and crew as confident and top-to-bottom talented as Weidner et al.

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