Vicious sex romp written in 1677.
Punkish defiance and style circa 1983.
Kick-ass Austin production in 2019.
The playwright Aphra Behn was the first professional female writer in the English language, and “The Rover” rose to unrivaled popularity during the Restoration, a period when theater was made legal again after nearly two decades of being banned (damn Puritans) and sexually explicit language was the hot new thing. Proto-feminist that she was, Behn’s play celebrates female sexual desire right alongside masculine lust, making it unique not only for its time but even by today’s standards.
Oh, yeah, and she was an actual, real-life spy.
The Hidden Room’s production of this historically important play embraces its lighthearted and (often) astoundingly modern social sensibilities. Far from dull maneuverings, the large ensemble cast revels in disguises, trysts, sword fights, song and dance. The story follows a gaggle of love-starved Englishmen wandering through Naples during Carnival season. They parry and thrust their way through jilters and courtesans, rakes and the sons of powerful viceroys — all culminating in the union of the two virtuous lovers.
Beth Burns has directed Behn’s unwieldy five act plot into a break-neck spectacle, one in which every moment dazzles. A dance ensemble and musical accompaniment glidingly transition each scene. Costume designer Aaron Flynn seized upon the flair and hair of the production’s 1983 punk aesthetic and, along with the rest of the costuming team, charged the visual palette of the play with rebelliousness from beginning to end.
The four musicians on stage also lend the sounds of defiance and rumpus-making to underscore these characters — the sympathetic and otherwise — and their laughable circumstances. Highlights of the performance as a whole, though, include exuberant covers sung by the casts and band of “I Melt with You,” “A Million Miles Away,” and other hits of the period. In these moments, the production most successfully translates the libertine spirit of Behn’s day to unruly correllaries a little closer to home.
Joseph Garlock holds down the swaggering role of Willmore, the titular rake whose philanderings routinely cause harm. He’s a fraternity boy caricature with a resonant baritone and self-assured smirk. Even while flirting with young Hellena (vividly portrayed by Valoneecia Tolbert), it is already clear that he will not be keeping his vows to her. Cast in relief during scenes with Angellica Bianca (Liz Beckham), a hard-nosed courtesan well aware of her own worth, Garlock and Beckham excel in the playful and later dangerous exchanges they share. For her own part, Beckham dominates every second she holds the stage, delivering humor, desire, betrayal, and a haunting rendition of “Love My Way.”
Amber Quick, another powerhouse performer, manipulates the 340-year-old text with notable dexterity. Her Florinda, the young noblewoman infatuated with Colonel Belvile (Brock England) but prevented from marrying him by her brother, ricochets through the masked world of Carnival season and its many mysterious encounters with perfect clarity and wrings meaning from every word.
Florinda is also the subject of the most troubling moment of the play — a threatened rape at the hands of the fool-turned-villain, Blunt (Toby Minor). This production pays special attention to the descent of Blunt as he bumbles around Naples before being duped and robbed by the lingerie-clad con-artist, Lucretta (Jennymarie Jemison). Irascible but buffoonish, Blunt gives the audience permission to belly laugh at his poor judgement. Minor turns that torment into a disturbing hatred of all women and desire to exact revenge on innocent Florinda, though, and he does so in a sudden shift to serious, measured delivery. This blip of Realism is quite shocking in performance and reminds us for a moment that we do live in a world where sexual violence is a constant threat.
Florinda later forgives Blunt for terrorizing her, and yet Quick packs the brief line and the pause that precedes it with centuries of coerced silence.
“The Rover” is a sexy, threatening, epic in scope, and alarmingly relevant. Expertly directed and bursting with electric performances, The Hidden Room’s take on this classic would make the punkish Aphra Behn very happy.