Justin Gillman as Blunt, Dan Saski as Don Pedro, Jeremy Kahn* as Willmore, and Alex Lydon as Belvile.
Justin Gillman as Blunt, Dan Saski as Don Pedro, Jeremy Kahn as Willmore and Alex Lydon as Belvile in The Rover by the Shotgun Players, playing in Berkeley through Nov. 15. Photo: Pak Han

One thing about Shotgun Players — they’re always up for trying unusual and challenging plays. Sometimes their attempts result in exceptional evenings, especially for a small local theater company. However, at other times their reach exceeds their grasp. The Rover, unfortunately in the latter group, is a production that only sometimes works, despite the best of intentions.

Written by Aphra Behn (1640? – 1689), a prolific British female playwright, poet, and novelist from the Restoration Period (1660 – 1710), The Rover is basically a silly comedy of manners, but it is also exceptional since the female characters are outspoken in expressing their “modern” sexual desires. This was radically avant-garde during the Restoration Period and Director M. Graham Smith does his best work while emphasizing this aspect of the play, which still charms.

Siobhan Marie Doherty as Florinda and Caitlyn Louchard as Hellena.
Siobhan Marie Doherty as Florinda and Caitlyn Louchard as Hellena in The Rover. Photo: Pak Han

But the remainder of the comedy falls back on the usual popular devices of the time, carnival masks, mistaken identities, separation of star-crossed lovers by a guardian, a hapless comic fall-guy, lovers’ quarrels, and a “love conquers all” ending. Perhaps this is because Aphra Behn took a bad comedy by her contemporary and perhaps lover, Thomas Killigrew, and reworked it into The Rover by deleting some other chunks of his play, while adding her own unique touches.

The ultra-busy plot revolves around sisters Hellena (charismatic Caitlyn Louchard) and Florinda (Siobhan Marie Doherty) at a carnival in Naples, in about 1670. They are in the custody of their older brother, Don Pedro (Dan Saski), who wants to put Hellena in a nunnery and marry off Florinda to a rich old man.

But the sisters have other ideas. Hellena meets and falls for “The Rover,” the wayward, sexually promiscuous Captain Willmore (terrific Jeremy Kahn), and Florinda has given her heart to Belvile (Alex Lydon). Willmore and Belvile are visiting Naples with their friend Blunt (Justin Gillman). He loses his heart to the courtesan Lucetta (Elissa Beth Stebbins in a dual role) who tricks and deceives him. Another courtesan, Angelica Bianca (Lauren Spencer), for the first time, loses her heart, to the roguish, charming Willmore. Moretta (also well played by Elissa Beth Stebbins), adds some amusing commentary as Angelica Bianca’s maid and factotum.

Between the artifice of the language, the lengthy speeches, and the comings and goings of all the characters on a small open set stage, some of the play was a bit lost on me. But when Hellena (Caitlyn Louchard) and Willmore (Jeremy Kahn) were on stage together, there was comedy, sparkle, romance and teasing sexual tension. If only the rest of the actors lived up to these two.

I may be judging the Shotgun Players a bit severely, since I have seen so much more successful Shotgun productions in the past. In any event, The Rover is a comedy that combines some laughs with a novel approach to 17th-century women’s’ sexual energy, and the audience seemed pleased with it.

The Rover is playing at The Ashby Stage through Nov. 21, 2015.

For information, extended dates and tickets, visit Shotgun’s website.  

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Emily S. Mendel

Emily S. Mendel reviews Berkeley’s vibrant theater scene for Berkeleyside. As a native New Yorker (although an East Bay resident for most of her life), Emily grew up loving and studying theater, from...