Martin Happer and Gabrielle Rose in the Blackbird Theatre production of The Rivals. Photo by Tim Matheson.
Martin Happer and Gabrielle Rose in the Blackbird Theatre production of The Rivals. Photo by Tim Matheson.

Looking for something a little different than the usual theatre fare this time of year? Vancouver’s Blackbird Theatre just may have the answer, as it presents Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Rivals as its tenth anniversary production.

“There is a real appetite for something other than the Christmas shows that are seen this time of year,” says Blackbird’s associate artistic director, Johnna Wright.

In fact, Blackbird Theatre has proven that there is a market for something beyond what is normally seen on stage during the holiday season, presenting the majority of its shows at this time, that have included the likes of Friedrich Schiller’s Mary Stuart, and even a production of Euripide’s Hecuba written in c. 424 BC.

“When my dad first suggested we do a Greek tragedy in December I was a little skeptical, but I was proven wrong,” she says with a laugh.

Wright, who will also direct The Rivals, comes to Blackbird Theatre by way of her father, John Wright who is the company’s artistic director. A graduate of the University of British Columbia’s theatre program, daughter Wright has been with the company from the beginning.

“I was roped into it by my dad,” she laughs again. “I graduated from the University of British Columbia at a time when it was still very much a classically based program, and I am involved because I love the classics. I don’t have as much grounding as he does in the classics, but I’ve learned much from him.”

Of course, defining what makes a classic is up for some interpretation. While Blackbird Theatre has reached into the theatre annals with shows like Marivaux’s 18th century Triumph of Love or Molière’s 17th century Don Juan, it has also undertaken more modern classics such as Beckett’s Waiting for Godot written in 1953, and Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe penned in 1962.

“What constitutes a classic is really hard to define,” says Wright. “Generally though, it is a play that can speak to an audience at any time.”

Such is the case with The Rivals. Written in 1775, Wright believes this comedy of manners has stood the test of time.

“The main through line in The Rivals is all about pretense, where everyone is pretending to be something they are not, either to others or to themselves,” explains Wright. “This is something that audiences will recognize in any era.”

Johnna Wright directs a production of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Rivals for Blackbird Theatre's tenth anniversary
Johnna Wright directs a production of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Rivals for Blackbird Theatre’s tenth anniversary. Photo by Jane Weitzel.

Considered among the Irish playwright’s best works, it is also what Wright and her father consider to be one of the best “first plays” ever written.

“He has this ability to string together multiple plot lines in different ways and it all manages to converge in a really neat way,” says Wright. “His comic insights are right on too, with each character funny in their own way. He has created these people really beautifully, and even they are all objects of humour, they are real people.”

Wright first recognized Sheridan’s skills after seeing a staged reading of the play some twelve years ago. It was a play that she has wanted to direct ever since, but one that is not easy to tackle.

“The original script calls for fourteen actors and that is a large number for any company, let alone a small company like Blackbird,” she says.

Wright has managed to bring the number of actors down to nine to make it possible, but more than reducing the number of characters, Wright is also moving the action from its original time period into the Edwardian era of the early 1900s. Wright hopes that by moving the piece 125 years forward will make it easier for audiences to connect with Sheridan’s characters.

“The original time period was an era of huge artificiality in how people dressed,” she says. “There were these two-foot tall wigs that both men and women wore, and big bows on the men’s shoes. The costumes of that time lent themselves to caricature and falseness, and I wanted them to feel real.”

The Rivals plays The Cultch (1895 Venables St, Vancouver) January 28 – February 23. Visit http://blackbirdtheatre.ca for tickets and information.