nytheatre.com review by Will Fulton
March 2, 2011
The Rover, a popular Restoration comedy by Aphra Behn, chronicles the sexual hijinks of a group of English cavaliers and Italian noblewomen in Naples during Carnival. The titular “rover,” Willmore, is a lascivious naval captain who becomes enamored of a young gypsy, Hellena, who is actually a noblewoman determined to experience love before being committed to a life of abstinence in a nunnery by her brother, Don Pedro. Hellena’s sister has coincidentally fallen in love with Willmore’s best friend, Colonel Belvile, but is hindered by her brother’s insistence that she marry the decrepit Don Antonio. Antonio, however, is in love with the famed courtesan Angelica Bianca, who has fallen in love with Willmore and sworn revenge on him after discovering his betrayal with Hellena. Because it is Carnival everyone is wearing masks, so all the expected hilarity of mistaken identities ensues, resulting in a few weddings and bruised egos. The stakes are never particularly high, but Behn's characters are charming and the plotting is reasonably tight, helped here by the svelte adaptation that smartly cuts out some extraneous subplots in order to focus on the core lovers' action.
The production takes place all over the World Financial Center, where the audience is led around from location to location by a pack of Carnival revelers and musicians. What could easily be a messy process of herding the audience from place to place is handled commendably well. A significant percentage of evening is spent walking from place to place, but it never feels particularly tedious. The WFC’s dramatic marble columns and atria provide an appropriately grandiose analog for Renaissance Naples. Director Karin Coonrod makes great use of the architecture, providing the audience with pleasantly variable physical relationships to the actors over the course of the show, many of which are generally not available in conventional theatrical spaces. The lobby in particular lends itself to some excellent escalator gags. With little do for set and lighting, the lion’s share of the design effort clearly went into the Oana Botez-Ban’s costumes, which are gorgeous. They have a richness which effectively complements the space’s marbled luxury, helping to smooth over the transition between the play and the real world, against which it frequently rubs as tired brokers head home for the day.
The play is pretty goofy, and the cast accordingly hams it up with a performance style that is consistently and enjoyably large and wry. April Sweeney’s Hellena stands out in particular for her infectious energy and remarkable physical precision. M. Scott McLean does a good job of keeping Willmore roguishly charming rather than slimy. Kelly McCrann is also worth noting for taking the largely functional Valeria and making her compellingly quirky, giving perhaps the best reaction I’ve ever seen to a character being arbitrarily wed off at the end of a Renaissance comedy.
The play holds up well and gives its female characters a refreshing sexual agency for the period. Prior to being, as Virginia Woolf called her, the first professional female writer, Aphra Behn herself escaped being promised to a nunnery and served as a spy for King Charles II in Antwerp. The Rover was an huge hit at the time, and even had a sequel, but it was subsequently rarely performed. The play and its author have had a resurgence in recent years in both performance and criticism for good reason. New York Classical Theatre's production is light and accessible. With free admission there is really no reason not to go check out this enjoyable production of an under-performed classic.