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Bailiwick Repertory

"Love gilds the scene, and women guide the plot," says a line in Richard Brinsley Sheridan's The Rivals. That's doubly true in this "lesbian fantasy" adapted by Lauren Love and L.M. Attea from Sheridan's 1775 original for Bailiwick Repertory's lesbian- and gay-oriented Pride Performance Series. Anyone expecting fidelity to Sheridan's intentions will be disappointed, if not aggrieved; his aristocratic comedy of manners and attitudes has been replaced by broad physical buffoonery and sexual-identity high jinks that owe as much to female male-impersonation revues and summer-camp skits as to Restoration theater. But Attea (who also directed the show) and Love (who also acts in it) demonstrate plenty of engaging energy and inventiveness, and Patricia Kane's genuinely sparkling performance is reason enough to recommend the production.

Kane plays Beverly Absolute, the bold and mischievous daughter of irascible Sir Anthony Absolute. Beverly poses as her absent brother Jack, an army captain, in order to elope with her beloved Lydia Languish. The nearsighted Sir Anthony's plans for his son's wedding are shared by Lydia's dotty guardian aunt, Mrs. Malaprop; all Beverly has to do is dress up as Jack, lower her voice an octave, and walk off with the bride without anyone realizing they've just witnessed a lesbian wedding. But things get complicated thanks to Lydia's well-meaning cousin, a dizzy dominatrix named Julia Melville whose passionate demonstrations toward Beverly, Lydia, and Lydia's servant Lucy mark her as a serial-monogamy lesbian (she wants 'em all, but one at a time). Not knowing that Beverly and "Jack" are one and the same, Julia arranges for "Jack" to fight a duel against Lydia's other suitor, Squire Bob Acres, setting the stage for an inevitable revelation of Beverly's deception.

This plot represents considerable reworking of its source, in which wealthy Captain Jack Absolute poses as his subordinate officer, Ensign Beverly, to woo Lydia--who's sentimentally predisposed to fall in love with a poor man rather than a rich one. It's a notion she's picked up from romantic novels; one of Sheridan's running jokes concerns whether it's good for women to be educated, and The Rivals Revisited carries the joke through by having Lydia feast on such books as Odd Girl Out and Return to Lesbos.

If this choice of reading material seems anachronistic for a play set in 1775, it should; Love and Attea play fast and loose with time and place. While suggesting 18th-century England in Elizabeth Sheets's period costumes, Dan Ostling's stage-within-a-stage setting, and Vicki Vasconcellos's baroque sound track, The Rivals Revisited interpolates campy contemporary references into Sheridan's dialogue; the setting has been moved to Provincetown (a gay resort in colonial America?), and it's revealed that Beverly and Lydia met at the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival, which probably would have been regarded in Sheridan's time as a front for witchcraft.

Even more freely handled is the notion of gender; "Love . . . has been a masquerader ever since the days of Jupiter," Sheridan says at one point, and The Rivals Revisited is shot through with multiple masquerades. Some actors in this all-woman cast play women, some play men, and some play women playing men. I don't recall a woman playing a man who plays a woman, but one, Lavonne Byers, plays an effeminate gay man--Beverly's servant, here named David. (In Sheridan the character is simply identified by his position--Fag.)

At the show's occasional worst, especially in the beginning, it's like watching a bad girls'-school production of a Restoration comedy. But along about the third scene, Patricia Kane comes on as Beverly, and everything starts to make oddball sense. Tall, lean, and athletic (she's also credited with choreographing the show's slapstick swordplay and fistfights), Kane has complete physical command of the stage; she wields that command with a sureness and a captivating fullness of spirit as the clever, mischievous, independent but always generous heroine, and the other actors come through with their best in every scene they share with her.

At other times, the actors and audience lose their way in the adaptation's sexual and chronological clutter; there are some good ideas here, but they need pruning. The show is at its best when it hews most closely to the original material; then its twists have an amusingly abrasive edge. The disguised Beverly's courtship of Lydia under Mrs. Malaprop's nose, for instance, is coarsely funny in the tradition of Charles Ludlam. Malaprop thinks "Jack" is on his knees in supplication to Lydia, when it's actually Beverly with her head buried under Lydia's long skirt; the gulf between Sheridan's and his adapters' intentions is clear and hilarious. Lavonne Byers amusingly recalls Eve Arden in the sarcastic second-banana role of the haughty fag David, a classic example of the gentleman's gentleman being more gentlemanly than his gentleman. Kelly Butler's petulant, decidedly unlanguid Lydia Languish also provides nice contrast to Sheridan's conception. And, at least in her scenes with Kane, Molly Reynolds offers a solid portrayal of the arrogant Sir Anthony, determined to make his son happy no matter what his son wants.

Less successful are Maggie Speer, whose Mrs. Malaprop is visually fine (she seems to have stepped straight out of a Joshua Reynolds painting) but lacking in the high-flown pretensions that make her mangling of the English language so funny, and Pam Wesselmann as Julia, saddled with lots of business (including a riding-crop bondage bit) that she seems not at all comfortable with. But in the scenes with Kane, even these flawed performances take on a confidence and clarity that serve The Rivals Revisited as well as they would The Rivals played, so to speak, straight.

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