A superbly elegant ensemble cast is handsomely supported by sumptuous costumes and an elegant set in the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey's production of "The Rivals." Theater offers a remarkably fresh and illuminating take on Richard Brinsley Sheridan's classic comedy of manners that sparkles with robust humor.

A superbly elegant ensemble cast is handsomely supported by sumptuous costumes and an elegant set in the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey’s production of “The Rivals.” Theater offers a remarkably fresh and illuminating take on Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s classic comedy of manners that sparkles with robust humor.

As staged by Matthew Arbour, the action is an unfailing delight, a romp rich in physical detail and amusing characterizations. Never mind that Sheridan’s convoluted plot races between the marital designs of two couples, accented by the added intrigue of a meddlesome aunt. The exaggerated characterizations merge into fanciful fun.

The pivotal mistress of intrigue is Mrs. Malaprop, with her masterful talent for murdering the English language. Monique Fowler provides the pretentious character with a comic gloss, delivering vowels that sail and spin as she mangles every sentence. She comes perilously close to stealing the show, prevented only by keen casting that has every character sculpted to perfection.

Sir Anthony Absolute is played by Richard Bourg with a wily, foppish crustiness that defines the cantankerous old codger. Christian Conn as a rattled suitor offers unglued hilarity.

Steve Wilson lends a sturdy turn as the dashing Captain Jack Absolute.

As the over-the-top foppish Fag, Derek Wilson is the very definition of a silly ass. The objects of all the wooing and wily plots are played by Kristie Dale Sanders, Kate Dawson and Mary Bacon with giddy winsomeness and squeaky splendor.

James Wolk’s set design imparts fine period flavor to the fashionable city of Bath, with its imposing drawing rooms and stately apartments. The rustling silken costumes by Brian Russman are pure gilded-age Gainsborough.

The aud’s hearty laughter is clearly appropriate: Despite the play’s nearly three-hour length, there’s nary a dull moment.

The Rivals

F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theater, Madison, N.J.; 308 seats; $50 top

Production

A Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey presentation of a play in two acts by Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Directed by Matthew Arbour.

Creative

Set, James Wolk; costumes, Brian Russman; lighting, Tyler Micoleau; sound, Steven L. Beckel; production stage manager, Kathy Snyder. Opened, reviewed Aug. 5, 2006. Running time: 2 HOURS, 55 MIN.

Cast

Fag - Derek Wilson Thomas - Tom Robenolt Lucy - Kristie Dale Sanders Lydia Languish - Kate Dawson Julia Melville - Mary Bacon Mrs. Malaprop - Monique Fowler Sir Anthony Absolute - Richard Bourg Capt. Jack Absolute - Steve Wilson Faulkland - Christian Conn Bob Acres - Jeffrey M. Bender Errand boy - Ethan Saks Sir Lucius O'Trigger - James Michael Reilly David - Blake Kubena Servants - Pressly Coker, John Heath Maids - Mallory Shear, Jillian Meek

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