Perhaps more than in any other western country, citizens in America view the seismic shift of cultural norms as a result of the last 100 years of progress. Before the sexual revolution of the ‘70’s, the world was all corsets and anti-masturbatory devices, right? Of course, this is incorrect. People are people, complex and simple all the same, and we’ve been fretting about whatever sexual ‘normalcy’ should be pretty much forever.
The Rover, an English 17th Century comedy by Aphra Behn (which is itself an adaptation of The Wanderer by Thomas Killigrew) is a play about many things: romance, patriarchal abuse of power, friendship, wealth and poverty, all knotted together by sexual politics. There are two groups of friends at the play’s center: 3 women of refined social status who sneak out during carnival festivities to party, and four soldiers out to do the same, most of whom seem content to enter into literally whatever sexual encounter they can stumble into. Everyone wants a sexual relationship, but the difference in the ‘hows’ and ‘whys’ create dozens of raucous, mostly lighthearted comedic subplots with familiar outcomes.
Despite the familiar trappings of what on the surface may well resemble an older, posher version of Porkies, CMU’s The Rover strays far from expectation thanks to some explosive stagecraft and clever direction. Adapted by John Barton and directed by David Bond, The Rover easily navigates the very uneasy line between faithfulness to the original text and dynamic critical interpretation. The ingenious mixture of period appropriate and bombastic contemporary design is remarkable and exciting. There is a certain hugeness to this production that’s lovable: the opening of the play features a servant wheeling in the three sisters, who are contained in a massive box of T.N.T that explodes them out of it. These choices are reckless yet precise, and satiate the need for bold interpretation and theater-nerd attention to detail.
The characters are all familiar archetypes, especially where the men are concerned. There will be little new for audiences to discover within the gallant nice guy, the rugged seducer, and the fool. The women, too, are archetypes, but there is a certain heart in their expression that can be disarming for a centuries-old work; or, maybe, it’s the lack of pretense. The women in this play are more acutely aware of the why of patriarchy than any of the men who unconsciously participate in it, and as a result are more easily relatable than one might expect.
Of all the characters, we arguably get to know Florinda (Hanna Berggren) and Hellena (Victoria Pedretti), the sisters, better than anyone else. Florinda is in love with Belvile (Henry Ayres-Brown), but is trapped by the designs of her respected, conservative brother Don Pedro (Isaac Miller) who does his best to force her into marriage with his friend, Don Anotonio (Freddy Miyares). Berggren’s Florinda is quirky and charming more than anything, but she doesn’t let the character’s vulnerability get buried overmuch by her humor. Florinda is a woman who absolutely knows what she wants, but is left at the mercy of the men around her to achieve her goal. There is an anxiety underneath this performance that bubbles up exactly when it needs to, and to great effect.
Similarly, Hellena is kept under Don Pedro’s lock and key (i.e. he spends a whole lot of time thinking and worrying about her virginity). In spite of her inexperience, she more than anyone embodies the box of T.N.T the characters spawn from. Pedretti’s Hellena is a kind of comedic beast. Her performance is simultaneously brainy and aggressively physical. Her romantic fascination with Willmore (Andrew Richardson), the sexual deviant and manipulator the play is named after, is a major highlight of the production. Any feminist interpretation of a play originally written under strict rules guide-lining the sexual conduct of women requires some kind of huge move to empower its female leads. As such, there is much satisfaction to take from the fact that it’s the ever-experienced Willmore who can’t keep up with Hellena, and not vice-versa.
The reading of The Rover as feminist text is all over the direction of this play (not to mention the playbill, which very directly asks “Aphra Behn and Feminism?”). The underlying need for dominance from the male characters is unmissable, and it rears its head in some ugly and unexpected ways that go largely unaddressed – although, the word I’m looking for here may actually be ‘unpunished.’ It’s likely the audience will chafe at characters like Blunt (Spenser Pollard), the afore-mentioned fool, who comfortably lashes out sexually at innocent women to attempt to gain some kind of justice for the put-upon straight guy with an unfair grudge.
Aphra Behn’s original script manifests its feminism not dissimilarly to an author like Jane Austen. The women in the works of these authors are always the smartest and most human characters with which to relate to, and while the men are never subjected overly to any oppressive sexual gaze, they are, at times, rightly robbed of their dignity. However, unlike Austen, the characters in this play enter into physically dangerous situations they generally have no defense against, which gives Behn’s work a rawer, uncomfortably cutting edge, and I really appreciated how little that edge was dulled in this production. Sexual politics vary wildly depending on the time and space the people in question exist within, and deeper conversations about forced patriarchal dominance from centuries past should not be limited to disagreements with pedantic British gentleman anchored by their prideful egos, no matter how often we forget our female writers throughout history.
CMU’s The Rover is a massive success. Besides the excellent performances and inspired stage design, this is a complex and energetic production that intuitively closes the gap between the precision of recreation and the creativity of re-invention.
Special thanks to Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Drama for complimentary press tickets. The Rover runs in the Philip Chosky Theater through December 3rd. For tickets and more information, click here.