“The Rover” seduces

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April 21, 2011

10:58 PM

“You can’t have your cake and eat it, too,” said someone, probably recently. Although the linguistic logic of that expression is in some doubt, the sentiment behind it is understandable. You can’t have it both ways. To apply that dictum to the theater — as some have — is to say that if a play is dated, then a modern audience won’t enjoy the material when it is put onstage.

Clearly they haven’t tried tiramisu. For Elizabeth Wiley’s production of Aphra Behn’s Campanian comedy, “The Rover,” although it deals in tropes typical for a Restoration play, is able to sidestep predictability and toss out the typical. This is not in a literal sense; it’s quite easy to see what’s coming. But knowing what will happen next has rarely been this much fun.

A work dealing with marriage and manners, “Rover” is often held up as a shining example of the female voice asserting itself in an era of masculine power. Centered around an ensemble cast of ladies, rogues and gentry, Behn’s play does occasionally engage the audience with a withering barb from a female character, but such meek progressivism is offset by the nature of its hero.

Willmore, the Rover himself and a wily ship captain given duplicitous life by C.J. Bergin ’11, is a master of seduction and subterfuge. He and his English friends — Andrew Collie ’11, Greg Benson ’11 and Kevin Place ’14 — are on leave in Naples during the festivities of Carnival, right as a contingent of Spanish gentlewomen played by Megan Behm ’11, Larissa Kruesi ’12 and Francesca Chilcote ’11 have disguised themselves as gypsies to snare Florinda’s (Kruesi) true love (Collie) before she is lost to another. No points for matching up those names, although gambling on the play’s outcome may win you a bundle. Complications naturally arise as multiple women fall sway to Willmore’s charms, including a formerly clinical courtesan played by Zoe Speas ’12 who commands a hefty price. That most are powerless to stop the Rover’s amorous endeavors makes the play problematic as a condemnation of male dominance. That doesn’t stop Wiley’s “Rover” from being effervescent in its execution, however.

A central conceit of this production is the use of masque, both as prescribed by the material and in bridging together scenes. Characters use them as disguises and comedic props, and make them extensions of their own personalities. In addition, members of a cloaked chorus come through to create living scenery, to denote the passage of time, and to provide a tableau for set changes. There is a duality to this idea that makes the device quite effective; the combination of a centuries-old theatrical tradition with bold interpretive moves. The show has two faces, you might say.

As for the players, just about everyone is fully invested in the spirit and silliness of the whole affair. Bergin is knowingly manipulative but convincingly bamboozled when his on-the-fly machinations fail to bear fruit. Yet when he brashly and tenderly announces his affections for the women he beds, he seems to be sincere. Willmore as addled by A.D.D.? I’ll buy it. Behm, as a nun-turned-gypsy-turned-Rover-bride, injects a spark of feminine agency in a character whose cleverness is largely nominal.

Like most of Behn’s female characters, Hellena is a slave to her rapidly-shifting emotions. Her scheming is made apparent by Behm’s careful cues, and it is a characterization that works when paired with a Willmore who considers his own appeal irresistible. Speas, as Angelica Bianca, is indifferent when on display, passionate when being wooed, and fiery when jilted. The scene in which she is taken in by the Rover is a red-hot display of engrossing onstage romance. Although there isn’t space enough to detail the merits of this sizable cast, rest assured it’s a group hellbent on selling the material — and sell it they do.

So, is there anything else that could be said about this raucous exhibition of period frivolity? What about the inventive, lush costumes from Patricia Wesp and David Doersch’s invigorating fight scenes? Striking sets and warm lighting from Matthew Allar and Steve Holliday? The ill-fated romp of Place’s Ned Blunt is a particularly masterful use of the latter.

Yes, yes, all worthwhile points. But it seems that there isn’t time enough to elaborate. You see, it’s been about a day since I saw “The Rover,” and for some reason or another, I could go for some cake.

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