Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
In a post-Oliver-Cromwell decade when theatres were rebuilding their burned-out structures, regrouping acting troupes, and looking to silly comedies with stock characters to re-attract a theatre-starved audience, Aphra Behn dared not only to emerge as a dominant female playwright. She did so by luring her audiences through bawdy jokes also to contemplate society's treatment of its female half. Shotgun Players presents an almost 350-year-old The Rover with its still-relevant themes of women being too often placed into stereotyped roles, forced to fight to have an equal voice and place in the world around them, and subjected to violence just because they are female. Shotgun Players and Aphra Behn ensure these points are made while still keeping us as audience constantly in stitches laughing.
As the street hurrahs and music of parading Carnivale revelers seep into a Naples home of the 1670s, two sisters plot how to escape a father and brother's plan of an unwanted marriage for one and a nunnery for the other. The sisters' plan is instead to escape masked into the riotous streets for a night of anonymous and forbidden exploration. Florinda opines for a soldier she recently met and hopes to find this night in order to plan an elopement. Her fast-talking, younger sister Hellena may be destined-to-be-nun but is tonight determined to grab a man, any man, cute enough and ready enough for a bedroom romp and her deflowering. As they sneak into the streets, three young pals also arrive in Naples looking for a night of drinking and debauchery, all the time plummeting each other with sex-filled one-liners and innuendoes.
Belvile, back from a military siege where he met a maiden who captured his heart (Florinda), fights bravely, barely resisting, the alluring tempts of the happy-go-lucky and roguish Willmore and their foppish friend Blunt to visit local brothels or to mate with a passing gypsy or two. Wanderings of the two sisters and the three buds, now all masked, lead to surprise meetings and wrong assumptions, sincere and false declarations of love, encounters with the lowest and highest of women of the night as well as jilts and jinks of all sorts. But jovial and too-drunken pursuits of lust also turn into forced attentions where not wanted, resulting in men too willing to use physical force over women who have dared to meet them on too-equal, too-clever grounds. In the end, after more disguises, desperate back-alley pursuits, and too-near disasters, these women all do take control of their destinies in ways that shock, shame, and subdue the males around them.
Siobhan Marie Doherty is the blonde and beautiful Florinda who swoons at the thought or sight of her Belvile and who also is brimming with the excitement of losing herself in the streets of Naples away from the controlling males of her family. She brings to Florinda just the right mixture of coquettish swish and twist along with firm determination to steer her own destiny. Caitlyn Louchard is delightful as the fast-chattering Hellena who is oh-so-eager to toss her nun's white lace for the slinky, black-lace stockings and too-short skirt of a girl on a mission to find love. Her Helena is clever, daring, and always able to draw audience laughs as she out-sneaks and outsmarts both the sleazy and the sexy man she seeks.
Also breaking out of societal boundaries is Angelica Bianca, a courtesan who commands high payoffs for her treats and who finds she has a heart open for love. Lauren Spencer plays with great skills the high and mighty side of this woman of the night; the sudden vulnerability of her finding unexpected attraction with a male visitor; and the fierce, eye-piercing look of revenge when she finds herself spurned. Loyally serving her is the hilarious Moretta, a pipsqueak, bent-over maid who guards like a hawk both Angelica and her potentiality for high payoffs. Elissa Beth Stebbins surprises more than one audience member in the curtain call when there are realizations that she somehow changed multiple times both costume and persona to play a super-sexy, dangerously devious prostitute, Lucetta.
As Willmore, the rover of this play by the same name, Jeremy Kahn steps into a stock character role of Restoration Theatre calling for a handsome, lovable lad devilishly to use all his wits and fun-loving manners to seek as much sex as possible, with maybe a little romance thrown in, by whatever stunts and silliness necessary. But as Afra Behn's rover, there is also a dark, mean, dangerous side of Willmore that keeps popping up, only then to hide once again behind the attractive, floppy-haired guy we as audience really want to like. Mr. Kahn brilliantly flips from one to the other of these two sides, leaving just enough room in the better part of himself for us to accept his eventual coming of senses to fall in love with the woman who has somehow believed in him all along.
Justin Gillman is Blunt, a fop in bright red bow tie and silly hat befitting a clown, who too often seems to be trying too hard to be funny. Mr. Gillman goes through all the right motions to be a silly wimp seeking his first-time sex, and sometimes he succeeds in capturing the excessive affectations of this dandy. However, too many of his antics seem to be like a joke line that just missed its timing or tone to draw the laughs intended. Even when he turns into a more vicious Blunt to lash out in an attempted rape, the moves and motions seem too stilted and forced to be either believable or farcical.
Alex Lydon as the suave, ever-faithful Belvile and Dan Saski as the controlling brother Don Pedro, who has his own shady side, are mildly noticeable in their roles but neither script nor their portrayals allow much lasting impression. (Mr. Saski is appropriately wicked and foul in brief appearances as a shirtless, slinking pimp.)
Truly starring in this production is costume designer Christine Crook, whose mostly red, black and white costumes of lace, feathers, and chiffon highlight sex, farce, romance, control, and evil all in just the right ways and places. The well-timed and realistic sound effects of Theodore J.H. Hulsker; the effective lighting of Heather Basarab; and Maya Linke's simple, bi-level, skeletal set with its central framed box (ready to be doorway or closet of escape) round out effects that help give this period piece a modern-day feel to go along with its still-relevant themes and messages.
Shotgun Players boldly brings a pioneering playwright's play of yesteryear to a 21st century audience where we discover her writing about our own current issues of sexual assaults against college coeds, difficulties of women to be given deserved equality in the workplace, and gender-based stereotypes that still stubbornly linger on every corner of society. The Rover is much less an amusing antique than a reminder that there is still much work to be done.
The Rover continues at Shotgun Players, 1901 Ashby Avenue, Berkeley, through November 15, 2015. For information and tickets, visit shotgunplayers.org or call 415-841-6500.