The Rover at Empire Stage: A Centuries-Old Sex Comedy Gets a Postmodern Reboot
Thinking Cap Theatre's production of The Rover is, among several things, a fashion show. Imagine the excavation of a thrift store, a costume shop, and Victoria's Secret, run deliriously amok.
Credited to set designer Chastity Collins and director Nicole Stodard, the wardrobe includes fur shawls, studded boots, and florid skirts for the girls; kilts, leather jackets, ripped jeans, and, eventually, luchador masks, eye patches, and mesh headgear for the guys. As a convent-bound partier prepared for a sinful night at Naples' Carnivale, Nori Tecosky looks hilariously incongruent with a nun's habit atop bold hoop earrings and a fishnet top under a black leather bustier. As a provincial British naif who descends on the carnival with a fanny pack and the spiked hair of an adolescent rebel, Mark Duncan looks like a cross between Johnny Rotten and a clueless tourist.
One minor detail: The Rover is set, and was written in, the mid-1600s by pioneering female playwright Aphra Behn, an English spy turned playwright whose fascinating background could fill this entire column. It's a bawdy restoration comedy of ill manners, set among the romantic and sexual lives of a colonel, a rake, a courtesan, a strumpet, a wench, a "woman of honor," and other identifications that no longer exist in this century, as they converge at Carnivale.
Willmore the Rover (Scott Douglas Wilson), whose mind is perpetually in the carnal gutter, is seduced by Tecosky's Hellena, in between wooing, loving, and leaving the region's most famous prostitute (Lela Elam). Mark Duncan's character, Blunt, falls under the spell of devious trollop Lucetta (Desiree Mora), with degrading results. And Colonel Belvile (Noah Levine) and the virginal Florinda (Yevgeniya Katz) desire nothing more than to marry and consummate their love, if only Florinda's brother Don Pedro (Theo Reyna) hadn't already arranged for his sister to wed another man.
Behn's unabridged text for The Rover spans nearly 30,000 words, five acts, and more than three hours; Stodard's adaptation for Thinking Cap runs about two and a half hours, in two acts, and it goes a long way toward dusting off this archaic work for modern consumption.
Those familiar with the source material will delight in Stodard's anachronistic revisions, from those creative costume choices through smaller stuff: One character's line "I have a command from my father here to tell you" has morphed into the more casual declaration of "I have a message from my father," delivered on a smartphone, while other characters navel-gaze at their own mobile devices. Later, an ostensible sword fight will play out with each duelist clutching a boxing hand-puppet toy. Par for the course, the background music runs an eclectic gamut, from monks' chants to the Killers; an impromptu dance number is choreographed to the Bangles' "Walk Like an Egyptian."
Truth be told, though, while I'm intellectually impressed with Stodard's innovations, this is still an overlong night at the theater, dense and taxing in its 17th-century language though utterly simplistic in its narrative path, which amounts to little more than: Men are sex-obsessed dogs, and women want them to put a ring on it. These are timeless stereotypes, perhaps, but they're hardly profound, despite The Rover's curious enshrinement as a proto-feminist work.
To my eyes and ears, The Rover plays out with the elliptical inevitability and mistaken-identity confusion of a frothy '40s musical, laboring protractedly toward resolution, with all parties happily paired off (with the notable exception of Elam's Angellica). And even Stodard's talented and committed ensemble of 12 can't help but lose themselves, and therefore us, in Behn's obscure and repetitive diction from time to time. Far be it from me to criticize a woman praised by the likes of Virginia Woolf for opening the floodgates of female literature, but how many times do we have to hear about poxes and coxcombs?
Still, the marathon acting is almost universally unimpeachable. The play offers a bravura showcase for Wilson as you've never seen him before. He makes for a gracefully thuggish roustabout, acting with his entire body — channeling the Three Stooges, the Marx Brothers, and Charlie Sheen in equal measure, with an infectious ebullience.
Elam, garnished with glittery makeup and a fur stole, perfectly captures her regal but crestfallen courtesan, and Giordon Diaz contributes hilarious physical and verbal mirth as a rogue with a Tourette's-like spastic tic. Carey Brianna Hart is given tragically little to do in her few minutes of stage time as a friend of the ladies, but she leaves an indelible mark whenever she's on.
On the other hand, Mark Duncan's shtick of ending nearly every sentence in a high-pitched trill grows old very quickly, and he continues to lean on this crutch for the entire show. Thankfully, there aren't many missteps like this one.
For the first time that I can recall at Empire Stage, the drama plays out on a thrust stage, with seating on three sides of the action. It's one of the many ways in The Rover that Stodard hopes to enliven a staid concept. But the bottom line is that this postmodern experiment on pre-modern source material is more suited to respect philosophically than to actually sit through. You'll probably have fun, though, provided you bring along plenty of patience — and a thesaurus.
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