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.

Riverside Theatre in the Park moves indoors

Iowa City – “The shows will go on! Due to City Park flooding, Riverside Theatre in the Park is moving indoors for its 14th summer season to West High Auditorium. Dates and times remain the same, June 14 – July 7, 2013. This summer’s plays are William Shakespeare’s much-loved drama Hamlet, directed by Kristin Horton, and Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s 18th century comedy about English aristocracy, The School for Scandal, directed by Theodore Swetz. For tickets and information, call 319-338-7672 or visit www.riversidetheatre.org. West High School is located at 2901 Melrose Ave, Iowa City, Iowa.

About West High Auditorium

West High Auditorium is an air-conditioned indoor theatre with excellent acoustics. Located at 2901 Melrose Ave, Iowa City, there is easy access to the building and plenty of parking.

Bring your own picnic and enjoy the Green Show on the lawn near the auditorium one hour before each performance. Riverside Theatre will be selling limited concessions. The Green Show is a short performance that provides a humorous overview of the evening’s main production.”

(Source: Riverside Theatre Press Release)

Riverside Theatre in the Park

Iowa City – “Riverside Theatre announces their summer season of classic works, Riverside Theatre in the Park, June 14-July 7, 2013. This summer’s plays are William Shakespeare’s much loved drama HAMLET, directed by Kristin Horton, and Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s 18th century comedy about English aristocracy, THE SCHOOL FOR SCANDAL, directed by Theodore Swetz. Performances take place at the open-air, Shakespearean Globe-inspired Riverside Festival Stage in Lower City Park, Iowa City, Iowa. Tickets range from $18-$40, with discounted 2-show passes available, Family Nights and group ticket deals. For tickets and information, call 319-338-7672 or visit www.riversidetheatre.org.

About Riverside Theatre in the Park
Riverside Theatre has a regular spring-fall season on Gilbert Street in Iowa City, but each summer two classic shows are presented in June and July at the beautiful Riverside Festival Stage in Lower City Park, Iowa City, Iowa. This is the 14th season of summer classics. Originally the summer season was called Riverside Theatre Shakespeare Festival, but the name change in 2011 to Riverside Theatre in the Park (abbreviated RTP) reflects the varied offerings, now not exclusively Shakespeare, though one Shakespeare piece has been produced each year. Actors and crew are made up of local and national professional actors and production team members, plus an apprentice company, who make Iowa City their home during the RTP rehearsal and performance period.

The Riverside Festival Stage is inspired by the Shakespearean Globe Theatre. It is an open-air theatre, seats 472 people and is set against a bluff, adjacent to a willow-ringed reflecting pond. The concessions stand opens 90 minutes before each show and offers a variety of treats and drinks. One hour before each performance is a free Green Show, a short, fun version of the upcoming performance performed by the RTP apprentice actors. The Green Show takes place on the lawn near the festival stage. For more information about the stage, concessions, accessibility, parking, weather policy, etc., visit www.riversidetheatre.org/locations

Shakespeare’s stage play, HAMLET, written between 1599 and 1601, remains today one of the most popular of his great works. Mystery, family, politics and love are explosively combined in the play, erupting into a wild, unforgettable climax. The story of HAMLET revolves around the young Prince Hamlet who has returned from his travels to the Danish royal castle Elsinore to find his father, the King, dead, and his mother remarried to his uncle, his father’s brother, Claudius. Soon, Hamlet is approached by a ghost claiming to be the spirit of his father. The ghost tells Hamlet that Claudius murdered him in order to usurp the throne and asks his son to avenge his death. Hamlet is shocked at this encounter and, not knowing whether his grief caused him to imagine the apparition, or if the ghost is real, Hamlet creates a plan. He feigns madness to buy time while he investigates the ghost’s claim at the castle. Hamlet’s love interest, Ophelia, suffers in the wake of Hamlet’s real or imagined madness, becoming an important tragic female figure in the play, performed this summer by Eliza Stoughton. Christopher Peltier returns to Riverside Theatre in the Park to play Hamlet. In past seasons he performed in the TWO GENTLEMAN OF VERONA and played Richard in AH WILDERNESS!

Kristin Horton also returns to RTP from New York to direct this production. Ms. Horton holds an MFA from the University of Iowa and teaches at New York University.

The production design team for HAMLET is: lighting designer David Thayer, scenic designer Shelly Ford, costume designer, Lindsay Davis and sound designer, Brianna Atwood.

Written by Richard Brinsley Sheridan, THE SCHOOL FOR SCANDAL was first performed in London in 1777 to rave reviews. Sheridan, born in Ireland but raised in England, is best known for his popular comedy of manners, THE SCHOOL FOR SCANDAL. A comedy of manners, a form sometimes called Restoration comedy, was popular after the Restoration of the English monarchy, approximately 1660–85. In the late 18th century the form was revived. It is a witty form of dramatic comedy that often satirizes manners, affectations and social customs of a contemporary society. The plot usually concerns an illicit love affair or other scandalous matters. Brinsley’s play, true to form, contains many humorous subplots about both love and money.

The story of ‘Scandal’ concerns the social circle of Sir Peter Teazle, a middle-aged aristocrat, and his new wife, a beautiful young woman from the country. Affairs, jealousy and greed are swirling around Sir Peter Teazle, who is blind to these moral disruptions. However, Sir Oliver Surface, uncle and benefactor to multiple members of the social circle returns from his travels and, hearing of this behavior, disguises himself to root out the good seeds from the bad.

Director Theodore Swetz says of the play, “Sheridan’s writing is a response to the Restoration Age where, in absolutely all plays written, the biggest bastard always wins the day. However, with Sheridan the tables are turned; his plays reveal a world where true love and goodness is celebrated while vice and hypocrisy go down in defeat.”

Mr. Swetz returns to Riverside Theatre in the Park. Past RTP directing credits include Love Labuour’s Lost, Ah Wilderness! and As You Like It. Mr. Swetz currently serves as head of acting at the University of Missouri-KC, MFA program. The SCHOOL FOR SCANDAL production design team is: lighting designer David Thayer, scenic designer Shelly Ford and costume designer, Lauren Roark. Music was composed by Matthew Janszen.

Both plays this year will have costumes created in styles true to those of the story’s respective period, HAMLET in Elizabethan style, and THE SCHOOL FOR SCANDAL, in 18th century London fashion.

Lauren Roark, costume designer for THE SCHOOL FOR SCANDAL secured an opportunity to travel to Hong Kong and work with a high-level, entertainment costume production shop. The creation of men’s jackets require highly specialized skills and she was able to work with producers on complex costume jackets. Lauren chose the materials and planned the designs, returning to Iowa with the first ‘School for Scandal’ costume pieces. She is now working on the elaborate dresses and remainder of the costume pieces with skilled professionals from the Riverside Theatre in the Park team.

Lindsay W. Davis is designing HAMLET. This is his fourth season with Riverside Theatre in the Park, and his rich costume experience brings incredible designs to the stage. Mr. Davis is a Harvard graduate and is currently a tenured faculty member at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. He has designed for 14 Academy Award winners including Kevin Klein, Helen Hunt, Morgan Freeman, Al Pacino, Elizabeth Perkins, Laura Linney, F Murray Abraham, and Marcia Gay Hardin. He has designed 13 productions at the New York Shakespeare Festival in Central Park. He designed the original production of the Tony Award-winning Best Musical The Mystery of Edwin Drood and won the NY Drama Desk Award and the Outer Critic’s Circle Award for his work. Other awards include the LA Drama Critics Award (twice), the SF Bay Area Critics Award (twice), and The South Florida Critic’s Award.

June 14- July 7, 2013

HAMLET by William Shakespeare
Directed by Kristin Horton

Friday, June 14 8:00PM
Saturday, June 15, 8:00PM
Sunday, June 16, 7:00PM
Tuesday, June 25, 7:00PM
Wednesday, June 26, 8:00PM
Friday, June 28, 8:00PM
Sunday, June 30, 7:00PM
Wednesday, July 3, 8:00PM
Saturday, July 6, 8:00PM

THE SCHOOL FOR SCANDAL by Richard Brinsley Sheridan
Directed by Theodore Swetz

Friday, June 21, 8:00PM
Saturday, June 22, 8:00PM
Sunday, June 23, 7:00PM
Thursday, June 27, 8:00PM
Saturday, June 29, 8:00PM
Tuesday, July 2, 7:00PM
Friday, July 5, 7:00PM
Sunday, July 7, 7:00PM”

(Source: Riverside Theatre Press Release)