A world-class academic program like the Carnegie Mellon University School of Drama is one of the few places with the wherewithal to mount a mostly authentic production of Richard Brinsley Sheridan's 1775 comedy, The Rivals. While combining the original five acts into two (ergo, only one intermission), CMU fills a luxuriantly leisurely evening of more than three-and-a-half dazzlingly theatrical hours.
Of course, as guest director Annie Tyson herself noted, the original audiences 237 years ago were boisterous types who "[felt] entitled to behave as they want," not politely sitting quietly in uncomfortable, unhealthfully built seats.
Back spasms and knee pain aside, I must admit that Ms. Tyson's vision is beautiful and well layered — a torte of a show. The well-selected actors handle the various accents successfully. (Thank you, dialect coach Janet Madelle Feindel.) Dramaturg Sara Keats' thoughtful notes on late 18th-century societal mores and customs, especially the party-hearty atmosphere of The Rivals' setting, Bath, are well appreciated. Sheridan's characters are not subtle, but his attitudes toward class and romance are.
As always with this play, the scene-stealer is Mrs. Malaprop, perfectly portrayed by Alexandra Spieth. Grace Rao is charming as Julia, the only truly sympathetic character, an honest young lover, and Ginna Le Vine is divinely coquettish as the childish Lydia Languish. Jon Jorgenson makes Julia's self-tortured fiancé almost lovable. Nick Rehberger, as the jejune hero, and Dylan Schwartz-Wallace, as the feisty Irish aristocrat, are dashing in their duel, choreographed by Catherine Moore.
Albulena Borovci's costumes are drop-dead gorgeous; the ladies' gowns suggest magnificent ships in full sail when the Empire was at its height. Applause also to Helen Jun, scene design; Justine Keenan Miller, lighting; Allegra Scheinblum, sound; Judith Ann Conte, choreographer; and Ariel Beach-Westmoreland, stage manager.
A truly rococo entertainment, The Rivals is lush and lovely, and long. And being true to the text includes casual racism and anti-Semitism. Be prepared, and consider yourself duly warned that this is not another classic truncated for modern tastes and tokuses.