When Lee High School's production of "The Rivals" began on Friday, April 23, there were audible gasps in the audience as the spotlight found two actresses in exquisite 18th-century costume, ready to speak the prologue of the show and take the audience back a few hundred years for a hilarious comedy of manners.
"The Rivals," written in 1775 by Richard Brinsley Sheridan, is an uproarious 18th-Century comedy about the conflict between romance and social convention. After numerous hijinks which include false identities, secret meetings and correspondence between supposed lovers, its characters find that perhaps romance and society can coexist if they are left to their own devices.
As Lydia Languish, Ellen Denker portrayed the character of a wealthy, romance-hungry girl whose affections are fixed on a man she believes to be a penniless ensign. Denker took advantage of the many opportunities in the script to speak candidly to the audience and regale them with sighing accounts of her humorous trials.
John O'Malley played Miss Languish's love interest (who is actually Capt. Jack Absolute) with a convincing display of emotion especially in the hilarious moments when he finds himself in a seemingly inescapable embarrassing situation, as happens several times in the show.
Mrs. Malaprop was played with a studied silliness by Alex Valentin. With her dead-on character gestures and the flair with which she misused vocabulary she had the audience laughing out loud whenever she appeared on the stage.
Costumes were brilliantly designed and created by Liz Hebert. The meticulous outfitting of each actor, even those in minor roles, contributed to a sense of time and place which not only helped the audience envision the world of the play but undoubtedly allowed the actors to take on mannerisms and movements appropriate to their characters which would be impossible with less accurate apparel.
Change of place was indicated by rolling set pieces which, while minimalistic, did the trick in allowing characters to move from location to location. Furniture and set decoration were not elaborate but singularly appropriate, a difficult feat for a high school presenting a period piece.
Lee's students rose to the challenge of a wordy, antiquated script with an eagerness that was evident throughout all five acts of the show. The energy of the actors was never suppressed by corsets and wigs; they overcame the sometimes restricting trappings of a period piece and were able to communicate their message to a modern audience who responded with an enthusiasm which must have echoed that of audiences over two hundred years ago.