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THEATER REVIEW

The Rover

Men vs. Women

By Vladimir Zelevinsky

staff writer

Written by Aphra Behn

Directed by Kim Mancuso

Starring Usman Akeju ’04, Ken Buswell, Rishard Chen ’02, Lawrence Detlor ’04, Kim Falinski ’02, Jessica Hinel ’02, Rachel Kline ’01, Sarah McDougal ’00, Ale Melikian, Lisa Messeri ’04, Rikky Muller ’03, Brenda Pendleton ’01, Joshua Randall ’01, Rich Reifsnyder ’03, Samantha Scolamiero, Tina Shih ’04, Abby Spinak ’01, and Kay Sullivan ’02

Presented by MIT Shakespeare Ensemble

March 22, 23, and 24 in La Sala de Puerto Rico, 8pm

There are many wonderful things about The Rover: its strong feminist bent; that it was written by Aphra Behn, the first professional female playwright in the English language; wonderful direction (Kim Mancuso); gorgeous costumes (Leslie Cocuzzo-Held); and a large, varied, and detailed gallery of female characters, all strongly acted. To sum it up: every aspect of The Rover that has to do with women is great. When it concerns men -- well, it’s another story.

On one level The Rover is a sex comedy (a dozen women and men trying to find their mates -- soul or bed -- during the carnival), on another level it is a strong parable about drive for gender equality. A metaphor of theater itself, The Rover has a lot to offer. Actually, at times it feels like a touch too much. There are at least five romantically linked couples and the corresponding number of plot strands, not to mention assorted supporting characters. But compared to a good deal of other theatrical experiences, this one provides a welcome jolt of energy and narrative complexity. The only exceptions to this are a couple of rather ominous scenes in the second act, wholly appropriate to the play’s theme and subtext, but jarringly at the odds with its style.

The Rover also has the abundant amount of theatricality, transforming the stage into rowdy streets of some unnamed location in the West Indies during the raging season of carnival and filling it with truly inspired sights. The costumes are wildly creative, in all the shades of the brightest colors, and the masks -- bird and butterfly shapes -- replacing the characters’ faces while freeing their inner selves. There is also frequent sword fighting (choreographed by Richard Hedderman), which is amazingly complex and wholly convincing.

What is not always convincing is the romantic aspect of the story, and that happens for one and only reason: however adept Behn is at creating female characters, all of her male characters are entirely indistinguishable. Each of them does get into a completely different kind of an adventure -- romancing a rich heiress who is masquerading as a gypsy, robbed by a couple of conspiring crooks, getting attention from a high price courtesan, or fighting a duel -- but it never matters who is the man that goes through all of these adventures, since they get to experience little, if any, adventures of the spirit. One man follows one woman in the street and gets into one situation, another follows someone else and has a different adventure -- but switch these men around, and the play stays exactly the same.

As a result it is hard to say anything valuable about the male cast of The Rover. All of them are talented and all of them get very little chance to display this talent. The script provides them with only tiny shreds of personality, which rarely matters. Only Ken Buswell (as Don Antonio) makes an impact, probably because the play casts him as a distinct antagonist for most of the running time.

This overall disparity is even more clear considering the variation and complexity of the female characters. Even the smaller parts -- protective governess Callis (Lisa Messeri ’04), sarcastic Moretta (Rachel Kline ’01), or scheming Valeria (Rikky Muller ’03) -- have a distinct voice and personality. The bigger parts are even more impressive: Kay Sullivan ’02 gives her Florinda a fully convincing combination of wistfulness and intensity, while senior Abby Spinak’s Florinda is a whirlwind of energy.

That leaves two performances, and they are grand. There is Jessica Hinel ’02, note-perfect, wholly owning the first act finale with the funniest performance in the play. It is her character’s put-on theatricality, together with the cast changing into their carnival costumes at the outset and out of them at the end, that makes The Rover work as a parable about theater.

Finally, there is Brenda Pendleton ’01 as the disillusioned courtesan, utterly and completely heartbreaking in her few scenes. Her brief lament for her lost virgin heart and her monologue at the play’s climax are the play’s heart and give it all the depth.