The Rover by Aphra Behn, England’s first professional female playwright, first saw the lights of a stage in 1677. Were Ms. Behn able to time-travel to Fort Lauderdale to catch the new Thinking Cap Theatre production of her play, she would doubtless be astonished at the lusty, wildly comic contemporary sensibility that director Nicole Stodard and her sharp cast have brought to a 336-year-old sex comedy.
She might also be amazed at just how engaged a 21st century audience is by her 17th century tale of bawdy men and romance-hungry women. Yet despite the whimsically anachronistic costumes — the “hero” rocks two different kilts, while the governess to two wealthy sisters gets decked out like Catwoman — and even with a set that looks like a graffiti-bedecked subway stop, Behn would recognize her play.
Stodard has trimmed the script, and the actors sometimes toss in a contemporary word or phrase, but Thinking Cap honors and delivers The Rover . Giving a vintage sex comedy a hip, hot, entertaining makeover that makes sense is no small achievement. Yet that’s exactly what Stodard and the Thinking Cap crew have pulled off in their new production at Empire Stage.
The Rover follows the sexual, romantic and pugilistic misadventures of a group of English guys marauding through Naples, Italy, at Carnival time. Their leader is Willmore (Scott Douglas Wilson), a randy fellow with a big personality and an unquenchable appetite for bedding beautiful women. His friend Belvile (Noah Levine) has fallen for local girl Florinda (Yevgeniya Kats), a ravishing redhead whose controlling brother Don Pedro (Theo Reyna) has another suitor, the noble Don Antonio (Giordan Diaz), in mind for her. Florinda’s younger sister Hellena (Nori Tecosky) is convent-bound — again, Don Pedro’s idea, not hers — but she’s determined to have one wild sendoff at Carnival.
Hellena spies and falls for Willmore, but not until he has managed an on-the-house night with the gorgeous Angellica Bianca (Lela Elam), a famous courtesan for whom love is a business. Yet she, too, falls for Willmore, and his romantic unreliability proves devastating for her, dangerous for him.
Also in Willmore’s posse are Blunt (Mark Duncan), a goofy country gent, and the dashing Frederick (Mickey Jaiven), who develops a fondness for Florinda and Hellena’s cousin Valeria (Emilie Paap). Callis (Carey Brianna Hart), the iPhone-wielding governess, and the roving dominatrix Lucetta (Desiree Mora) round out the cast.
The plot also involves disguises, mistaken identities, attempted rapes, kidnapping and more — at first blush, not the stuff of comedy. Yet Stodard, the actors and designers unerringly find just the right, sometimes ridiculous tone so that The Rover plays like a wild extended Saturday Night Live sketch.
Stodard gets fine work from creative collaborators Chastity Collins (set and costumes), Stefanie Howard (lighting), David Hart (sound) and Paul Homza, whose “fight” choreography is Looney Tunes funny.
The well-schooled acting company makes what might otherwise be difficult dialogue easy to follow. The bombastically charming Wilson, the magnetic and moving Elam, the saucy and seductive Tecosky, the earnest and funny Levine, the alluring Kats and the cleverly clownish Duncan, in particular, are deft at communicating the meaning in their characters’ words. The physical performance style helps too, as gestures and movement further illustrate meaning.
Staging a lesser-known, large-cast theatrical classic on a modest budget is a risky move for a small company. But with the intelligence and imagination Stodard has brought to The Rover, Thinking Cap’s risk pays off.