Goodman Theatre

Angel was picked up by a redheaded Pole who brought her to his home in Greenpoint. Two other men were waiting there. Angel tried to leave. The redhead pulled out a machete, one of the others pulled out a knife. Bitch, they called her, fucking bitch. You’re gonna make us come.–from “The Invisible Girls,” a report on homeless prostitutes by Kathy Doble in the Village Voice, March 14

I understand Aphra Behn’s The Rover is getting a lot of play in regional theaters these days. Makes sense. Here’s a witty, silly, sexy, 300-year-old comedy that was a big hit with Restoration-era audiences. It fell out of favor with the Victorians and remained out until the Royal Shakespeare Company picked up on it just a few seasons back. It’s got disguises, intrigues, love, a little swordplay, and–thanks to RSC adapter John Barton–a Caribbean carnival setting that begs for big dances and hot colors.

Best of all, it’s by a woman. The first European woman known to have made her living as a writer.

An artistic director would have to be crazy not to consider producing a play that combines the classy sheen of something old, droll, and British with the contemporary hook of feminism–especially when the feminism is so unforced. Behn’s writing exudes a jaunty, one-of-the-boys nonchalance even as it’s ripping the boys to shreds for the jaunty nonchalance with which they tyrannize women.

Instances of that tyranny are everywhere. The Rover centers on three wellborn sisters–Florinda, Valeria, and Hellena–who live under the so-called protection of their foppish but calculating brother, Don Pedro, in a Spanish crown colony somewhere in the New World. Custodian of their hymens as well as their fortunes, Don Pedro keeps the sisters cloistered: Florinda and Valeria figuratively, as comfortable prisoners at home; the lusty Hellena literally, as a novice in a convent.

During carnival, however, the sisters disguise themselves as gypsies, and slip away to the festivities, where they meet three English cavaliers in exile from Cromwell’s straitlaced regime. Each sister takes her pick and spends the rest of the play running, now to and now from him.

The cavaliers, meanwhile, are doing some running of their own. Having declared his love for gypsy-masked Hellena in the morning, the randy Willmore encounters the great courtesan Angellica Bianca in the afternoon. She’s starved for genuine affection and he exploits her condition, getting what one might crassly call a free ride in return.

Then there’s Blunt, a well-heeled English bumpkin whom the other cavaliers have befriended. Gulled by Lucetta, a whore, and her nasty pimp, Sancho, Blunt’s deprived of his money and clothes, given a whack, and dumped in a sewer . . . from which he emerges not only smelly but pissed.

Blunt decides to take revenge wherever he can get it. Finding himself alone with Florinda, he holds her hostage, promising to rape her, and even offers the other cavaliers a piece.

Of course, he doesn’t get very far. Florinda’s identified as the beloved of another cavalier before the very worst can happen, Blunt makes his apologies, and each sister is united with her cavalier in happy–and voluntary–matrimony.

Like I say, Behn handles all these transactions with a jaunty nonchalance. The Rover is a very funny play that nevertheless manages to deliver a few sharp pricks to male egotism, sexual totalitarianism, and the double standard. Certainly a big part of the pleasure of this script for a modern audience is the way Behn’s unsentimental wit–antedating even Mary Wollstonecraft’s by a good century–lays out hypocrisies we thought we’d discovered. “Who made the laws by which you judge me?” says the courtesan Angellica Bianca to Willmore. “Men.”

And as directed by Kyle Donnelly (who’s lately taken enormous leaps forward in both competence and the budgets she’s allotted), this Goodman Theatre production stays right with Behn. Sumptuously realized by a design team consisting of John Lee Beatty (sets), Lindsay W. Davis (costumes), and Judy Rasmuson (lighting), and beautifully choreographed by Michael Sokoloff, the show maintains a clear, clever, athletic lightness while giving sober emphasis where necessary. Lonely Angellica Bianca is granted the full dignity of her pain, and abused Lucetta the full sorrow of hers.

The one serious miscalculation comes in that passage where Florinda’s held prisoner by Blunt. The scene’s basically about kidnapping and gang rape; pared down to its essential elements, it’s no different–no different at all–from the scene described at the top of this review, by reporter Kathy Dobie. And yet Donnelly allows its basic horror to be obscured by Ross Lehman’s clowning as Blunt.

The problem, in a way, is that Lehman’s too good. An accomplished musical-comedy actor, he knows all too well how to ingratiate himself with an audience. He turns Blunt’s crime into a comic tour de force with nuances worthy of Chico Marx. It’s great, but it’s wrong. Donnelly’s got to find a way to undercut a vaudeville that threatens to undercut the whole character of Behn’s script–and Behn’s achievement.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kevin Horan.