Dave Campbell and Natasha Zacher in a scene from The School of Scandal of Vancouver
Dave Campbell and Natasha Zacher in a scene from The School of Scandal of Vancouver

Richard Sheridan’s The School for Scandal would be an ambitious production unto itself. In adapting the 1777 social satire about our collective love for gossip and rumour to appeal to a modern Vancouver audience though, The School for Scandal of Vancouver feels at times like there are two plays competing with each other.

While the bulk of Sheridan’s original text remains, in Matthew Willis’s adaptation there are references to Starbucks, the Penthouse Night Club, cellphones and yoga mats, plus slang like “wassup” and “tru dat”. Against Sheridan’s language of the time, some of the juxtaposition with our modern world works, and underscores just how little has changed in the 238 years since it was originally written. At other times though the rhythm of the original text is interrupted, pulling us out of the story momentarily.

Not helping is in the delivery of the original text. Like Shakespeare, there is a skill necessary to effectively deliver Sheridan’s elegant turn of phrase. While a few of this likeable cast are able to pull it off, there is an unevenness in the performances that also pulls us out of the story, and building back momentum is tough.

Willis, who directs his own adaptation, doesn’t help by allowing a number of the performances grow to immense proportions inside the intimate space. Satire doesn’t mean exaggeration or “going big”, and it is in those performances where the actors play the sometime ridiculousness of its story with simplicity and understanding that land with the greatest results. Even among individual performances there is an unevenness that once again contributes to the feeling we are watching two different plays.

Still, there are a couple of stand-out performances.  Dave Campbell and Natasha Zacher as Dr Teazle and his wife Francine, nail Sheridan’s text and Willis’s new words, with an amazing clarity. Campbell is particularly good here, making the long-suffering husband feel fresh and without a hint of exaggeration. Together they are a delight to watch, but these two performances also highlight the problems in some of the other performances.

Performed with the action happening in the round from a central playing area in the middle and on three sides of the CBC Studio 700 space, there are some issues with sight-lines that once again interrupt the action.

At the top of the show, instead of the usual reminders to turn off cellphones, Willis invited us to turn them back on and even to take photos, and post them to social media (the photo above was taken during the performance). It seemed a very fitting request in our current world where social media now fuels our unusual human need for gossip and scandal.

Perhaps it’s the venue, but the last time I saw a production at CBC Studio 700 I referred to it as a “hot mess” – that weird combination of being simultaneously beautiful and unattractive – which seems a fitting description for A School for Scandal of Vancouver. There are parts that work, but its unevenness and three hour run time (with intermission), make it a tough grind.

A School for Scandal of Vancouver adapted and directed by Matthew Willis. Based on A School for Scandal by Richard Brinsley Sheridan. A Quimera Theatre and Now! Theatre co-production. On stage at CBC Studio 700 (700 Hamilton St, Vancouver) until July 5. Visit http://quimeratheatre.wix.com for tickets and information.