Aphra Behn’s ‘The Rover’ brings timeless humor to Michigan Shakespeare Festival
JACKSON, Mich. – The new Michigan Shakespeare Festival season treats area audiences to a rollicking production of The Rover, a Restoration Comedy written by Aphra Behn in 1677 and lovingly adapted and directed by Janice L Blixt.
Even if this were not a delightful production (it is) the play would be worth seeing if only to experience the work of its legendary playwright. Aphra Behn was probably the first English woman to take up writing as a profession. Because of Behn’s own “indecent” reputation (as a woman with the audacity to persevere) her work fell out of circulation for several hundred years. Local theatre patrons may recognize Behn as the subject of Kickshaw Theatre’s production of “Or,” which explored the eventful life of this gifted translator, playwright, poet and spy for Charles II. Kudos to MSF for staging her work and to Blixt for trimming bits here and there, combining a few minor characters, and staging The Rover in a way that allows its timeless humor to shine through.
True to the spirit of Restoration Comedy – which marked the restoration of a king (Charles II) to the throne of England and the lifting of puritanical theatre bans – this play thumbs its nose at the moral restraints enforced during the Protectorate era. Indeed, in The Rover, the antagonists are those who loudly protest their moral outrage at others’ presumed immorality while vying to bed an infamous, high-priced courtesan.
The play is set in Naples and opens as three kinswomen of noble birth and Spanish heritage discuss the thrills associated with the pursuit of love and the restraints that keep them from said enjoyment. Florinda is in love with the English Colonel Belvile, but has been promised by her father to a rich old man she despises. Florinda’s brother, Don Pedro, is equally determined to marry her off to his wealthy young friend Don Antonio. Florinda bewails her fate, but gets little sympathy from her sister Hellena, who is destined to be a nun – also against her own inclination. Their cousin Valeria suggest they sample some fun while they can, and the three girls disguise themselves as gypsies and slip out of the house to enjoy Carnevale.
Enter three English Cavaliers who have come to escape Puritanical England and enjoy the excesses of Carnevale. Frederick and Blunt are intent on finding willing female companions, but their friend Belvile is heartsick over Florinda and eschews all women but her. The men are quickly intercepted by a fourth comrade, the English sea captain Willmore – the rover indicated in the title. Willmore, by his own admittance, is a philandering womanizer, given to drink and mischief making. Cut out to be the villain of more high-minded plays, here Willmore’s disarming good nature, inability to dissemble, and enthusiasm for women’s better qualities (e.g., wit, intelligence, and resourcefulness) make him remarkably attractive.
As the various characters engage in the Carnevale festivities, masks and capes are donned, kisses are exchanged and swords are crossed. The plot is much too complex to summarize here, but in the end some characters are wounded in body, some in pride, and some by Cupid’s arrows. Those who are true to their own nature, in defiance of societal convention, are the ones who prevail.
The Michigan Shakespeare Festival company does consistently stellar work, and The Rover offers ample proof. Even when ribald hilarity is happening front and center, other characters offer bits of business that are sure to draw a chuckle from anyone in the audience glancing their way. Robert McLean exudes roguish charm as Captain Willmore, who catches and is caught by would-be nun Hellena, played with moxie by Destiny Dunn. The steadfast Belvile is played by the elegant Laurence Stepney, who is constantly thwarted in his attempts to woo the all-to-willing Florinda, played by Claire Jolliffe with perfect comedic coquetry. Alan Ball makes a choice appearance as the “woman of quality” who makes and easy prey of Tobin Hissong’s character, Blunt, who is quickly relieved of his purse, his jewelry and his clothing. The incomparable Janet Haley appears as the sultry-voiced, world-wise courtesan Angelica Bianca. Diana Coates is Valeria, Cody Robison is Don Antonio, Zach Fischer is Don Pedro, Ian Geers is Frederick, Jason Briggs is Stephano, and Kevin Tre’Von Patterson is the Officer.
Almost every male actor in The Rover is required to engage in extended swordplay, which they execute with both vicious energy and a touch of humor thanks to David Blixt, Festival Artistic Associate and Fight Director for this production.
Designs for the show lean into Janice L Blixt’s vision for the sense of freedom that comes from shedding layers of artifice to get closer to what’s real. Costume design by Darice Damata-Geiger acknowledges the excesses of late 17th Century fashion without literally reproducing those weighty costumes and wigs. The men are dressed in an inventive mash up of old and new – with belted frock coats constructed with the sleeves detached and laced into place, oddly suggestive of the outlandish doublets favored in that period. The women’s dresses are lovely, with tight bodices, plenty of décolletage, and full skirts. All of the masks, capes and shawls donned and swapped by the various characters help invoke the bizarre Carnevale mood. Blixt’s design team also includes spare but effective modular scenery by Joe Schermoly, with sound and musical arrangements by Kate Hopgood.
Everything about this production is calculated to charm, entertain and engage contemporary audiences in the timeless fun of human beings caught in affairs of the heart. The play makes no attempt to excuse men behaving badly, although Blixt makes the wise artistic choice to downplay an attempted rape scene found in the original text. Instead, we witness Aphra Behn’s distain for double-standards, her celebration of life and love, and her contribution to a body of work in which women can be their own heroes.
Read more about The Rover 07/14–08/18
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