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Theater in Washington, DC

A Commentary on The Rivals by Richard Sheridan, now playing at the Shakespeare Theater.


The first image we see on stage is that of two servants lighting candelabras and then having them lifted to the ceiling. This is an apt metaphor for the play that Director Keith Baxter has created as an evening of luminosity and high spirits.

Playwright Richard Sheridan was born 8 years before the birth of Mary Wollstonecraft. This is only important if we realize Wollstonecraft wrote the first considered statement for feminism The Vindication of the Rights of WornaLn. Women did not write serious books, before this time; and the only books available to women were bubble baths of simpering love. If we see The Rivals within this context we understand a great deal. This is a comedy of manners in the truest sense of the term. It is comedy of the times when men were educated and women embroidered. Women may have been able to throw a ball higher than their brothers, and secretly study botany, but the accepted order of the day was for a female to be adornment — the subject of love, and never the hero. Sheridan reveals how women then become manipulators and mischievous secret agents. Thus, the brilliance of the piece is the playwright's insight into the behavior of the times. It is very hard for a writer to look into the present, so it is always surprising to see the pillars of perception and wisdom on which this comedy stands. Since women were only to read fluffy novels (at that time written by women using male pen names) then the idea of romance depended on poverty and long suffering love through adversity. This might be what a wealthy heroine dreamed for in a mate. Written from the point of view of the upper class women of 18th century, the plot twists and turns in the wind with all the tricks of the trade: double identities, mistaken identities, mis-delivered love letters, received and read by the wrong people. The language is highly epitomized; and language is the bulwark of this play. Here we have the famous prototype for misspoken words, Mrs. Malaprop. Today when we murder the King's English, we refer to "malapropisms" after the famous character center stage in this drama. How can we forget the description of niece Lydia Languish: "as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile." Such lines are barked hilariously by ensemble actor Nancy Robinette. The furniture and style of the 1700's make up the formal frames of each set. And within this elegant restraint is the wild high spirit of theater. Keith Baxter — as director of The Rivals — this is a love letter to you. May we thank you for theater perfectly perfect, with not a detail unattended. Thank you for an evening of wit and spectacle, for not meddling with the script, and for helping to make the Shakespeare Theater the gold standard it is.  The Rivals by Richard Sheridan is lighting up Washington DC.

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