The School for Scandal shockingly relevant today

The School for Scandal was written by Richard Brindsley Sheridan in 1777. As a piece of satire about Georgian-era social intrigues, it has proven to have remarkable durability and has spoken to successive generations of theatregoers about their own times. It not only probes some of society’s more outrageous and viperous self-aggrandizers, it does so with good spirits and comic intent.

You don’t have to go very far into recent films, such as Cruel Intentions or Mean Girls, to see the ghost of Sheridan chuckling in the background – although his 18th century gossip mongers and fatuous social arbitrators were more inspired by the playwright’s amiable spirit of generosity and sense of fun than the lethal teens of those films.

The current re-imagining of the comic classic at the U of A’s Timms Centre for the Arts through April 7 is directed by Mitchell Cushman (the 2018 Mary Mooney Distinguished Visiting Artist). His production is simply brilliant. He has fashioned a focussed and boundlessly creative entertainment.

The experience begins before the play does. The show is supposedly presented by the “Ariel Winslow Academy for the Arts.” The faux program has a cast list of nonexistent performers (whose bios are written by the actors in the show).

Cushman has ably managed the difficult task of respecting Sheridan’s original but has gussied it up with projections and musical stingers ranging from Mozart through disco to some rather naughty rap. It’s dressed in sumptuous costumes and set in the ornate drawing rooms, manicured mansions and terraced town houses of the very rich of the time (Robert Shannon is credited with sets, costumes, props and projections.) The cast performs with mincing poses that are at once studied, stylized and formal but seem entirely motivated (before anyone enters the room – the occupant strikes an affected stance and holds it until the effect registers). Cushman makes a real effort to colour his cast with an individual playfulness.

It may take a moment or so to get into the language, but very shortly you will completely understand what is going on because of the clarity of the staging and precise diction of the actors. Another adroit technique to keep the 12 person cast identified: As they walk on the set their names and a neo-classical portrait of each appears on a rear screen.

The play begins with an impromptu salon at the home of Lady Sneerwell (Hillary Warden) as a coven of gossip mongers gathers to eviscerate all their friends (and enemies). There are the two devious popinjays, Crabtree (Matt Mihilewicz) and Backbite (Joel David Taylor) joined by the devious Joseph Surface (Silvarius Materi). They employ the snooping talents and societal clout of a gossip columnist who goes by the name of Snake (Erin Pettifor).

This is delicious stuff and certainly recognizable as the world to come – where Facebook is the final social arbiter, enforced conformity the norm and TMZ is the major news source. These characters live in a world, alas very like our own, where gossip is a form of social control and exist in terror that their secrets will be exposed. The trio plant blind items in the papers in an effort to keep Sir Peter Teazle’s lovely ward, Maria (Kiana Woo) and Joseph’s honourable but debt ridden brother, Charles (Billy Brown), apart. In all this, the only character with a solid moral compass is Ms. Rowley (Hayley Moorhouse).

Meanwhile, at the estate of Sir Peter Teazle (Connor Suart), the aging aristocrat is learning of the difficulties of having a wife much younger than himself. Lady Teazle (Priya Narine) was once a modest country lass but since marrying Sir Peter she has discovered the pleasures of London’s high society – and spending his money. The marriage is on rocky ground – mostly because of her profligate ways.

“If you wanted to have dominion over me you should have adopted, not married me,” she spits out.

At the same time, rich Sir Oliver Surface (Alex Cherovsky) has returned to England from the colonies to conduct an undercover search for a nephew who is of sufficient worth to be his heir.

The pacing is that of a vaudeville review. There’s a door slamming farcical scene, secret assignations that go wrong and a fierce gut-busting battle of tattle that spills over into the audience.

In an excellent cast of equals, the two plotting friends, Sir Oliver and Sir Peter, have the best roles and they tear into them like a feast of cheese wigs and peacock pie.

Photos by Ed Ellis

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