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.”
Wilson, who teaches at New World, says of the play’s language, “It’s the actor’s job to make the audience understand what’s going on. We also have to reconcile our more psychologically-based training with the heightened nature of this…Willmore is the original wild-and-crazy guy. He falls in love or lust instantly.”
Working on The Rover has made Stodard hungry to program a classic into each Thinking Cap season. The 35-year-old director is married to a pediatric ear-nose-throat doctor and leads a busy life juggling motherhood (she has a daughter and son), theatrical work and her dissertation. She is happiest, she says, behind the scenes, staging plays and moving Thinking Cap toward her vision for its future.
“I have such bad anxiety that I get the sweats just making a curtain speech,” Stodard says. “I love theater, but not acting.”
She started Thinking Cap after her sister Ginger, who loved theater and had acted in college, died of colon cancer.
“She was 16 years older than I am. At first, she was a second mother, then a big sister, then a dear friend. When she died, I fell apart,” Stodard says. “Thinking Cap is the sunshine that came out of that loss.”
Stodard intends to keep Thinking Cap in Broward County, which has lost two major professional companies (Mosaic Theatre and The Promethean Theatre) in the past year. Her theater’s carefully defined mission statement describes it as a company “devoted to experimental, provocative and socially-concious work,” telling “compelling stories in fresh and surprising ways.” Presenting “historical works that have rarely or never seen the light of the stage,” works such as The Rover, is part of that mission too.
Within three years or so, Stodard hopes Thinking Cap will have its own space and be an official not-for-profit theater. So far, the company has been funded by friends, family, program ads and ticket sales. Stodard is a realist, but she’s a realist with a plan.
“We dream big, then try to step back and think realistically,” she says. “It’s wonderful to see the growth.”