Sunday, August 5, 2012

Sunday Night on the Upper West Side: Hudson Warehouse presents Aphra Behn's "The Rover" at the Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument in Riverside Park

Tonight we had the pleasure of seeing most of Hudson Warehouse's exquisitely staged production of Aphra Behn's The Rover, a raunchy, rollicking, racy Restoration comedy.
Despite its lurid excesses and elaborate, complex plotting, in the hands of an effective ensemble, The Rover's genuinely funny moments are frequently evident and the play's radical feminist riot grrrl polemic is nicely hidden in plain sight.
We say "most" of the performance because, most regrettably, a hard-hitting thunderstorm in the middle of act four of this five-act play brought everything to a halt, with four or five narrative threads still quite unresolved as cast, crew and audience all needed to leave the Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument in Riverside Park as soon as possible to avoid getting more drenched than we did (and we guess getting hit by lightning isn't fun, either).
This will teach us not to wait until the last performance to see the next Hudson Warehouse production, Richard III, starting next weekend. But we still got much enjoyment from director Jesse Michael Mothershed's version of The Rover, which transforms the English soldiers seeking sex and fun in Spanish-controlled Naples at Carnival time to American soldiers of the South looking for pleasures at Mardi Gras in New Orleans circa 1902, where the 17th-century swordplay, wildly divergent attitudes regarding female sexuality, and the tension between sophisticated cosmopolitanism and brutal feudalism seem perfectly at home.
The play opens as two sisters, Florinda and Hellena, talk about romance and relationships. Florinda pines for Colonel Belville, an English gentleman whom she admires. Helena speaks of her wish to experience romance before she is sent to a nunnery. Their brother, Don Pedro, enters, telling Hellena to banish foolish thoughts from her head. He reminds her that she will soon be a nun, and there is no place for romance in her life.
He then turns his attention to Florinda. He tries to persuade her that Don Vincentio, the man her father wishes her to marry, is a good match because of his wealth and social status. Florinda thinks Don Vincentio is too old, and has her heart set on the youthful and gallant Belville. Pedro, in an effort to insure that his sister make a good marriage, suggests that Florinda marry an esteemed friend of his instead. The friend, Don Antonio, has expressed interest in Florinda, and Pedro sees this pairing as an opportunity to help both his friend and his sister. Having said his peace for the moment, Pedro leaves. With her overprotective brother out of the room, Hellena convinces Florinda and Valeria, their cousin, to find costumes and go to Carnival. Helena is determined to have a taste of excitement before her liberty is confined by convent life.
In the streets -- this is where we came in -- Mardi Gras celebrations are underway. Belville and several bachelor companions have come to New Orleans for the festivities. Belville's friends, Blunt and Frederick, are wondering why Belville is melancholy in spite of the festive atmosphere. Belville admits that he is thinking about Florinda, whom he met several months prior and has not seen since. He pines for her, but fears he lacks the wealth and status to pursue her.
In spite of his romantic troubles, Belville's spirits rise when he runs into his old friend Willmore. Willmore, a nomadic flirt (nicknamed "the rover"), is taking a short break from shipboard service to relax and enjoy the fun of Mardi Gras, especially the ample opportunities for romance.
While this reunion unfolds, Florinda and Helena arrive with their cousin Valeria, costumed as gypsies, to join the party in the streets. Florinda is delighted when she spots Belville, the object of her affection. Helena is quickly intrigued by the handsome stranger (Willmore) she sees with Belville. Helena and Florinda separate to pursue their respective interests. Helena, in her gypsy garb, engages Willmore in conversation. He is enchanted by her wit and intrigued to know her real identity. Helena preserves the mystique for the moment, but promises to meet him at the same spot later in the day on the condition that he does not fall for another lovely lady before their date.
While Helena carries on her flirtation with Willmore, Florinda tries to set up a late-night rendezvous with Colonel Belville. She has to be careful because Callis, governess to Florinda and Helena, is keeping a watchful eye on her. Taking advantage of her disguise, Florinda pretends to be a fortune-teller and reads Belville's palm while quietly revealing her true identity. Just as Belville realizes who she is, Callis announces the arrival of Pedro. Florinda slips Belville a note that instructs him to come to her garden gate later that evening. She wants Belville to help her escape her brother's control and her imminent arranged marriage. Helena rejoins Florinda and they exit with Callis to avoid rebukes from their brother for being out at Carnival against his wishes.
After the sisters leave with their governess, Belville shares Florinda's note with his friends, including Willmore, and asks them if they will meet at Florinda's garden gate later that night to help her escape. They agree to help. This settled, talk turns to Angellica Bianca, a famous courtesan (okay, high-class prostitute), who has come to New Orleans and who will be "entertaining" gentlemen at Mardi Gras. The men have heard that her charm and beauty are worth the high fees she commands. While the others talk of the revered courtesan, the less-than-dashing Southern rustic Blunt is delighted to find a costumed woman named Lucetta paying attention to him. Blunt is quickly seduced by Lucetta, and as Belville and his companions exit to dine and see more Mardi Gras sights, Blunt and Lucetta leave together for an amorous liaison.
And that's our adaptation of a summary we found of just Act One! There are still four acts to go, but the complications are funny and they moved fast in the Hudson Warehouse production, with especially good performances by Amanda Renee Baker - whom we've enjoyed in a variety of roles over the past few years -- as Lucetta, Chris Behan as Willmore, Christopher Travlos as a hapless Ned Blunt,
Sydney Stanton as Hellena, Elizabeth Alice Murray as Angelica Bianca, and Amber Bogdewicz as a sprightly Florinda. But the Hudson Warehouse performances are always tight-knit ensembles with even the "minor" roles being played well, and perhaps the best moments of The Rover include not just the comic romantic interludes but the wonderful fights and group set pieces where there are half a dozen or more actors interacting onstage.
Also, as usual, the productions use the north portico and its steps, balconies and ledges fluently. Even those of us in the back were sometimes in the "front" of the action as the characters stood nearby. We're sorry rain interrupted the last act and a half, but we still enjoyed The Rover and at home we read the rest of the play (and skimmed the first three acts).
We've often assigned to classes something we first read about 40 years ago, Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own. This 1929 polemic set into motion ideas that would forever alter the reception of texts written by, for and about women. Yet as many times as we've gone over it, we'd never understood fully before tonight why Woolf proclaims Aphra Behn to be the figurehead of gendered equality within the literary profession:
All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn, which is, most scandalously but rather appropriately, in Westminster Abbey, for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds.
Now we do, thanks to Hudson Warehouse's fine adaptation of The Rover. (Video courtesy blueparrotable)

1 comment:

Al Coppola said...
This comment has been removed by the author.