The Rover has guts. In this latest adaptation by Nancy Copeland and Patrick Young, restoration playwright Aphra Behn tells a story that pretty much everyone can relate to: one about young people sneaking out, disobeying the will of their guardians, and having sex on the sly.
Despite having all the qualities of a typical restoration comedy, like confused letters and love tokens, mistaken identity, and crossdressing, this production makes special use of each of these elements as more than just a plot device. Rather, they represented everything that a character had to do to seduce, deceive, or lead lovers on a goose chase.
The roles are fairly evenly distributed in type throughout the piece, with characters sorting themselves into two spheres: masters and servants. In a conventional setup, the servants exist to push the main characters’ plots in the right direction. But in The Rover, there are so many boys, pages, maskers, dancers, bodyguards, pimps, gentlewomen, whores, and governesses that it’s as much fun keeping track of them as it is of the lovers. Every character, regardless of the number of lines they have or the amount of time they spend onstage, has developed a rich inner life for themselves, which doesn’t go unnoticed.
Director Melee Hutton further makes good use of her multitalented cast, giving each actor ample chances to show off their talents through dance, music, and acrobatics. It’s true that in normal circumstances all this extra business could have proved distracting, but delivered in carefully measured doses, it made the world of the play layered and complex.
No character in The Rover is a stereotype. If you want to keep up with the plot, don’t blink. Behn weaves a detailed web of relationships and betrayals, headed by the raucous Willmore (Nicholas Potter), an Englishman who has just dropped anchor in Naples to find his fellow cavaliers Belville (Adrian Beattie) and Frederick (Roberto Esteves), and maybe a “wench” (or four). Willmore is especially enamoured of the beautiful Angelica Bianca (Chiamaka G. Ugwu), but he and his friends, including the newly arrived Blunt (Evan Williams) are being chased by three other women, Helena (Eliza Martin), Florinda (Eilish Waller), and Valeria (Cornelia Audrey), who’ve thrown off their good girl personas in honour of the masked carnival taking place, and take full advantage of their hidden identities to give the men a good deal to worry about.
Meanwhile, the courtesan Lucetta (Brittany Miranda) sets up a ruse to lure Blunt to unfortunate, if humorous, shame. Each character has a delicate and realistic balance of qualities; no one is completely good or unfailingly clever. Like real people, they try their best to get what they want, which doesn’t work out a lot of the time. This makes them interesting and relatable. I don’t want to watch a play about perfect people. I want, on some level, to watch a play about myself.
The set provides the perfect hybrid of indoor and outdoor spaces for the characters to inhabit. Much of the play takes place on the streets of Naples in questionable lighting during a masquerade, and the set enhances the dramatic possibilities with all manner of stairs, platforms, and alcoves for characters to climb on and hide behind. There are almost always several conversations happening at once. Though the main focus was the well-lit centre stage, I was also intrigued by what went on in the dark corners: who was listening in, who was getting drunk and trying to hide it, and who was flirting with whom.
The Rover, though a couple hundred years old, still speaks to the audience. The jokes land and the violence gave me shivers. I understood what everyone said and wanted and was fighting for. Putting on a period play, especially one as well-known as The Rover, unavoidably comes with huge expectations. A large portion of the audience has seen or at least read the play before and sits down with preconceived notions. The essential lesson is that people in 1677 weren’t really all that different from people in 2014. We still swear and have sex. We give our friends a hard time and make exclamations out of fear and anger. The Rover provides a risky, funny, brave ending to Theatre Erindale’s season.
The Rover runs until March 23 at the Erindale Studio Theatre.