Riverside’s The School for Scandal Gets High Marks

John William Watkins as Crabtree; Jody Hovland
as Mrs. Candour. Photo by Bob Goodfellow

By James E. Trainor III

Iowa City – The School for Scandal, the other half of Riverside’s 2013 Riverside Theatre in the Park Festival (Hamlet opened last week), first opened in London in 1777. In it, Richard Brinsley Sheridan ruthlessly mocks 18th-Century British society. Though the costumes (by Lauren Roark) do a wonderful job of transporting us back to that time via recreating the ridiculous fashions that dominated, the production itself is surprisingly modern. Contemporary American society, after all, has no shortage of hypocrites, gossips, liars, and usurers. Theodore Swetz’s direction focuses on the storytelling, and does a wonderfully job of taking these very colorful characters and putting them into context. It is very clear how much social power these scandalmongers have, and how much the protagonists are in their grip. Thoughtful direction, dazzling design, and excellent acting make The School for Scandal an entertaining and thought-provoking play.

Much of Sheridan’s satire is leveled at the rumor mill that had so much sway in his time. His “school for scandal,” the group of socialites that idles away the hours in Lady Sneerwell(Corliss Preston)’s drawing room, is nasty, vindictive, and its members are not afraid to turn against each other on a dime. These characters are petty and mean, but also very intelligent, defending their behavior with sophistry and clever phrases. Sneerwell is the charming but vicious “headmistress” of this “school,” and Preston is excellent at portraying her pleasure at being so cruel. Crabtree (John William Watkins) and Benjamin Backbite (Spencer Christensen) seem to be the “star pupils” of the group, and their snide observations and clever insults are greeted with riotous laughter from the others. Watkins and Christensen are absolutely fabulous in these roles, playing off each other very well and exploding with vocal and physical energy every time they are on stage. Lastly, Lady Candour (Jody Hovland), who delights in going from house to house spreading rumors, is a member of this group who seems to be disliked but tolerated for the valuable information she has. Hovland creates a wonderful comic character in this busybody, coupling the speeches with hilarious facial expressions and taking obvious pleasure at being the center of attention. All of these malicious macaronis are dressed in the height of fashion, with huge hairdoes, painted faces, and gigantic outfits, and the effect is a little bit alienated, a little bit cartoony, and altogether outrageous. Roark has done a wonderful job designing effective costumes that are astounding to look at.

Sneerwell assists Joseph Surface (Jim Van Valen) in discrediting his brother Charles (Christopher Peltier). The scoundrel Joseph is a “man of sentiment” who always has some very lofty words of wisdom that he doesn’t actually believe. He’s trying to seduce both the ward and the wife of his friend Peter Teazle (Tim Budd). Van Valen is hilarious in the part, adding more and more manic energy as Joseph’s schemes blow up in his face. Budd is an excellent scene partner, and is very funny as the gullible Teazle, both in the scenes where he is being duped by Surface and in the scenes where he is squabbling with Lady Teazle (Eliza Stoughton).

Lady Teazle has an interesting character arc. Much younger than her husband, brought up in the country, she has become enchanted by London society and is quickly becoming part of the scandalmongering crowd. Even though she seems petty and bitter at the beginning, she breaks with the villains in the end, and her character is treated a lot more sympathetically than Joseph, who scampers off the stage in shame. Stoughton plays this character well, with humor and emotional honesty.

Charles Surface is an interesting character as well. Though he is kinder than his brother, his reputation has been ruined, in part because of his own excesses. Sheridan’s text is great because his heroes are not without their flaws. Where Peter is bitter and foolish, Charles is reckless, spending his days drinking and gambling on credit. When his uncle Oliver (Ron Clark) visits him, disguised as a creditor, Charles arranges to pawn his collection of family portraits — though he stops short of selling the picture of Oliver himself. In contrast to his brother, who is too busy preaching to practice, Charles’ few, simple moments of thoughtfulness show him to be the nobler brother, as Oliver soon realizes. Peltier clearly understands this character well, and it is a delight to see him bring him to life.

The show is played in the West High auditorium, due to flooding at City Park, and Riverside has built a small set piece to make up for the lack of a balcony. The staging of the play is very effective, the transitions are quick and humorous, and the pacing is excellent: quick, witty, and full of laughs. Director Theodore Swetz has done a wonderful job putting this intriguing script on the stage.

The School for Scandal runs in repertory with Hamlet through July 7. More information here.

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