Outside of an academic setting, comedies from England’s Restoration era (1660-1710) almost never get a professional production in South Florida, where contemporary plays, New York-tested musicals and the occasional new work dominate most season lineups.
Sure, audiences here know and love the work of William Shakespeare, who influenced those Restoration-era playwrights and uncounted generations of dramatists. But mention Aphra Behn, and you’re likely to get a quizzical look from anyone without a strong academic background in theater history.
Nicole Stodard, the founder and artistic director of Fort Lauderdale’s Thinking Cap Theatre, is not among those puzzled people. She is working on her doctoral dissertation, the last step in earning her Ph.D. in English literature from the University of South Florida in Tampa. Her subject: directing the work of Behn, who became the first professional woman playwright after working as a spy for England’s Charles II, the king whose reign (1660-1685) encompassed the first half of the Restoration period..
So Thinking Cap, a three-year-old company born in part as a tribute to Stodard’s late sister, will open the director’s ambitious, creative, intellectually grounded production of Behn’s The Rover on Friday at Fort Lauderdale’s cozy Empire Stage.
The Rover, which debuted and became a hit in 1677, is a comedy laced with sex and violence. Set in Naples, Italy, at Carnival time, it follows the romantic pursuits of a group of visiting Englishmen, particularly a bawdy naval captain named Willmore. He falls for the convent-bound Hellena but detours into a steamy encounter with Angellica Bianca, a courtesan who doesn’t take Willmore’s sexual and moral unreliability at all well.
In plenty of ways, The Rover is the most challenging piece yet for a company that has produced nine eclectic plays, including Sarah Kane’s shocking Cleansed, since debuting in May 2010 with Joshua Conkel’s edgy gay-themed comedy MilkMilkLemonade.
The Rover features a dozen actors, including double Carbonell Award nominee Lela Elam as Angellica, marking the first time Stodard has cast an Equity actor. Stodard has cut the play loose from its original time period, embracing anachronisms and a punk attitude. The guys, touted as “The Brit Pack on Holiday” in promotional postcards, wear kilts and leather for a show Thinking Cap describes as “not your great, great, great granny’s 17th century sex comedy.”
Though Stodard has eliminated some minor roles, combined others and edited the script, she hasn’t changed a word.
“The charm of the piece is the language,” Stodard says. “If you change it, it’s like any other cat-and-mouse love play.”
In addition to Elam, The Rover’s diverse-by-design cast features Scott Douglas Wilson as the bawdy Willmore, along with Giordan Diaz, Mark Duncan, Carey Brianna Hart, Mickey Jaiven, Yevgeniya Kats, Noah Levine, Desiree Mora, Emilie Paap, Theo Reyna and Nori Tecosky.
The actors have various levels of training in classical theater, but they’re all relishing the challenge of The Rover. And they appreciate the extensive research and knowledge that Stodard brings to the rehearsal room.
“I studied all of this in school, but if you don’t do it ever, it means having to relearn a lot of things and do research,” says Elam, a New World School of the Arts graduate. “But I said to myself that I really needed to do something different and not be afraid. The others don’t seem to be as intimidated, so I’m watching them, especially Nori and Scott. I feel like a newborn baby.”