“The Rivals” Is Delightfully Absurd Entertainment

Jonathan King (left), Morrisa Nagel (center), and Sarah Beth Short star as Capt. Jack Absolute, Mrs. Malaprop, and Lydia Languish in "The Rivals" (photo by Curtis Brown Photography)
Jonathan King (left), Morrisa Nagel (center), and Sarah Beth Short star as Capt. Jack Absolute, Mrs. Malaprop, and Lydia Languish in “The Rivals” (photo by Curtis Brown Photography)

EDITOR’S NOTE: Kurt Benrud is flying solo on this review.

Ah! Eighteenth century comedy! In those days, animated cartoons had not yet been invented. So, artists such Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751-1816) used the medium now referred to as ” Comedy of Manners” to create such delights as Mrs. Malaprop and company in The Rivals. In Actors Comedy Lab and Raleigh Little Theatre’s current production of this comic masterpiece, playing now through Oct. 18th in RLT‘s Gaddy-Goodwin Teaching Theatre, every character has an agenda; and nearly every plan that every character conceives continues to misfire. The stakes might be lower, but we get the feeling that a stage full of “coyotes” are pursuing a stage full of “roadrunners.”

The play is well-cast, and all performances are more-than-adequate. Mrs. Malaprop, of course, is famous for her misuse of words. Morrisa Nagel masterfully “sells” every line as she delivers it. There is never any doubt about what the character thinks she is saying, and Nagel thus makes these malapropisms that much funnier. (Be sure to take note of Nagel’s bio in the program.)

Tracey Phillips (as both Lucy and David), Jonathan King (as Captain Jack Absolute), Gus Allen (as Faulkland), and Robert Kaufman (as Acres) all augment their fine work with incredible facial expressions that add a measure of richness to the moments.

Tony Hefner (as Sir Lucius O’Trigger and as Thomas) shows his usual mastery of comic timing. His physicality as Thomas in the opening scene is well worth the price of admission.

The Rivals calls for repeated use of “asides,” in order to share the characters’ thoughts with the audience. Director Rod Rich has made an interesting choice for signaling an aside.

The script includes a plethora of echoes of Shakespearean lines. These most likely thoroughly delighted Richard Sheridan’s original audience. And the role of Lucy is a direct descendsnt of the stock role of “the wiley servant” in classical comedy.

Although Sheridan probably never imagined his work being produced on any type of stage other than that era’s popular proscenium stage, Thomas Mauney’s scenic design makes the most of the thrust stage in RLT‘s Gaddy-Goodwin Theatre. Sometimes, the audience is “backstage” with the actors as they prepare; sometimes we are on three sides of the characters as they perform.

One of the joys of the thrust stage is that we become audience to other audience members. We get to enjoy seeing them enjoy the show.

The cast of "The Rivals" includes (from left) Gus Allen as Faulkland, Sarah Beth Short as Lydia, and Jonathan King as Jack (photo by Curtis Brown Photography)
The cast of “The Rivals” includes (from left) Gus Allen as Faulkland, Sarah Beth Short as Lydia, and Jonathan King as Jack (photo by Curtis Brown Photography)

The Department of Picky-Picky insists on pointing out one of the drawbacks: sometimes we miss some of the visuals, because they are blocked to play to a different side off the stage. The trade-off, however, is in our favor. Set changes are well choreographed, and often entertaining as well. For a little added entertainment, keep an eye on the projection screens above the back corners of the stage.

18th century theater is known for its opulent costumes. Jenny Mitchell’s costume design for this production is no disappointment — all costumes are true to the period and appropriate to the idiosyncrasies of the characters who wear them.

In addition to the visual feast (supplied by the characters and their costumes), there is an audio feast, not just in the delivery of the lines but also in the accents chosen for this cross-section of 18th century British society. The various accents, however, might make the dialogue slightly less accessible to the casual audience member, so paying close attention is recommended.

Note: Taking the time to read the introductory material in the program is highly recommended. Doing so will greatly enhance your enjoyment of this absurdly delightful play.

Actors Comedy Lab and Raleigh Little Theatre present THE RIVALS at 3 p.m. Oct. 4, 8 p.m. Oct. 8 and 9, 3 and 8 p.m. Oct. 10, 3 p.m. Oct. 11, 8 p.m. Oct. 15 and 16, 3 and 8 p.m. Oct. 17, and 3 p.m. Oct. 18 in RLT‘s Gaddy-Goodwin Teaching Theatre, 301 Pogue St., Raleigh, North Carolina 27607.

TICKETS: $22 ($18 students and seniors), except all seats $13 on Sunday, Oct. 4th.

BOX OFFICE: 919-821-3111 or https://raleighlittletheatre.secure.force.com/.

GROUP RATES: 919-821-3111.

SHOW: http://raleighlittletheatre.org/shows/15-16/rivals.html and https://www.facebook.com/events/425679280950410/.

VIDEO PREVIEW: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SfSZflcontM&feature=player_embedded.

RLT NEWS RELEASE: http://raleighlittletheatre.org/press/rivalsfiles/Press_release.docx.

2015-16 RLT SEASON: http://raleighlittletheatre.org/shows/15-16/index.html.


Actors Comedy Lab: http://www.actorscomedylab.com/ and https://www.facebook.com/pages/Actors-Comedy-Lab/201926916520429.

Raleigh Little Theatre: http://www.raleighlittletheatre.org/, https://www.facebook.com/RaleighLittleTheatre, https://twitter.com/RLT1936, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raleigh_Little_Theatre, and http://www.youtube.com/user/raleighlittletheatre.

VENUE: http://raleighlittletheatre.org/tickets/seating.html.

MAPS/DIRECTIONS: http://raleighlittletheatre.org/about/map-directions.html.

PARKING: http://raleighlittletheatre.org/about/parking.html.

NOTE 1: All shows are wheelchair accessible, and assistive-listening devices are available for all shows.

NOTE 2: Arts Access, Inc. of Raleigh will audio-describe the show’s 3 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 11th, performance.


The Rivals (1775 English comedy of manners): http://www.theatrehistory.com/irish/rivals.html (TheatreHistory.com) and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Rivals (Wikipedia).

The Script: http://books.google.com/ (Google Books).

Study Guide: http://www.ocr.org.uk/images/71517-unit-f663-the-rivals-1775-richard-brinsley-sheridan-introduction-and-guided-reading.pdf (Oxford Cambridge and RSA).

Richard Brinsley Sheridan (Irish dramatist and poet, 1751-1816): http://www.theatrehistory.com/irish/sheridan001.html (TheatreHistory.com), http://www.britannica.com/biography/Richard-Brinsley-Butler-Sheridan (Encyclopædia Britannica), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Brinsley_Sheridan (Wikipedia).

Rod Rich (Raleigh, NC director): https://www.facebook.com/rod.rich.33 (Facebook page).


Kurt Benrud is a graduate of Cary High School and N.C. State University, and he has taught English at both. He first became involved in local theater in 1980. He has served on the board of directors for both the Cary Players and the Cary Playwrights’ Forum. He is also a volunteer reader with Triangle Radio Reading Service. Click here to read his reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.