Topsy-turvy world of ‘The Rover’ delights audiences

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The set of Shotgun Players’ “The Rover” is built ever so slightly askew. Sloping gently to one side, the tilted stage is the perfect nod to “The Rover’s” setting: 17th century Naples during the Carnival celebration, a time of masked revelry during which the seriousness of everyday life is set askance and replaced by a topsy-turvy world of wild indulgences. At Shotgun Players in Berkeley, playwright Aphra Behn’s 1677 comedy is given a rousing, rowdy staging that befits all the gaiety of Carnival while honoring the play’s more serious provocations around matters of sex, gender and the worth of women in a world ruled by men.

A playwright, poet and part-time spy, Behn is one of the best-known writers of the Restoration period and the first Englishwoman known to make her living as a professional playwright. England’s Restoration period, which began in 1660, marked the first time in which women — previously banned from performing on the Elizabethan stage — were allowed to take on theatrical roles. Shortly thereafter, the Restoration comedy — a genre known for its bawdiness and sexually explicit themes — was born.

“The Rover” fits squarely within the conventions of the Restoration comedy genre, but Behn’s genius lies in how she uses a backdrop of revelry, seduction and comedic exploits to explore themes such as the tension between matrimony and autonomy, expectations of sexual purity and the way in which female characters navigate a set of power dynamics that disadvantage them at almost every juncture.

Director M. Graham Smith’s production fully embraces Behn’s dualism. Shotgun Players’ “The Rover” is raucous and side-splittingly funny, but Smith takes care not to obscure Behn’s more serious themes — including several instances of attempted sexual violence — beneath a veil of humor. The play never once sags under the heft of its two and a half hour runtime, either. Instead, the production hums merrily along while weaving through its various densely layered subplots.

First, we’re introduced to sisters Hellena (Caitlyn Louchard) and Florinda (Siobhan Marie Doherty). Hellena, whom Louchard plays with captivating aplomb, is a delightfully mischievous sprite who pursues the roguish Willmore (Jeremy Kahn) in an attempt to avoid her brother Don Pedro’s (Dan Saski) plan to send her to a convent. Willmore, the play’s eponymous rover, is an English naval captain whose capacity to wreak total havoc is perhaps the only thing greater than his sexual appetite.

Much like her sister, Florinda hopes desperately to avoid the marriage her brother has planned for her by reuniting with her beloved Belvile (Alex Lydon), another Englishman who has traveled to Naples with Willmore. Belvile and Willmore are joined by the impish Blunt (Justin Gillman), who spends his time in Naples pursuing the courtesan Lucetta (Elissa Beth Stebbins) only to be deceived. Finally, another courtesan, the renowned Angelica Bianca (Lauren Spencer), is left heartbroken after a dalliance with Willmore, though Don Pedro, her longtime admirer, attempts to win her affections.

All comedies — and perhaps especially ones as old as “The Rover” — depend on the sheer energetic force of their performers to truly succeed. “The Rover” hits that mark and exceeds it several times over. Each member of the cast puts forth a fully formed, captivating character — no easy feat when working with comedic stock characters that are several hundred years old. At the level of dialogue, too, the cast succeeds tremendously. Though Behn’s language may not be quite as challenging to the modern ear as that of a Shakespearean comedy, 17th century wordplay is still somewhat difficult. Each actor handles the dialogue clearly enough for comfort while preserving the richness and rhythm of Behn’s register.

In all, the cast of Shotgun Players’ “The Rover” make Behn’s work a comic delight fit for the modern age. Carnival, as Behn reminds us, is a time to indulge appetites of all kinds. Any audience hungering for the delights that “The Rover” has to offer will surely be left more than satisfied.

Contact Sarah Elizabeth Adler at [email protected].