Aphra Behn’s “The Rover” is a fascinating, high spirited and sometimes deeply problematic Restoration era comedy, given a workmanlike production by 20% Theatre Company.
The main storyline involves two sisters, Helena (Deanne McDonald) and Florinda (Meg Harkins) and their romantic entanglements with two friends, Wilmore (Peter Eli Johnson), the roguish “rover” of the title, and the noble Colonel Bellville. (Michael Medford) The men in their family have different plans for the young women, Helena is to be sent to a convent, while Florinda is promised to another man. Shenanigans ensue so that they can win their hearts desires rather than be sold off.
The Rover is reminiscent of Shakespeare’s ensemble buddy comedies like “Merchant of Venice” and “Much Ado About Nothing.” Even if it never reaches those plays’ heights of wit and characterization, it has many moments of fun. Like much of Shakespeare, it also has some elements deeply shocking and repellant to a modern audience: most obviously, a tendencey to play rape for laughs. The character of Wilmore is obviously meant to be something of a loveable antihero. Unfortunately he crosses the line from “Oh Wilmore you charming rascal what are we going to do with you?” to “For the love of God, Wilmore no!” much too quickly and easily. At one point Wilmore drunkenly attempts to molest Florinda, apologizing only when he realizes she’s his friend Bellville’s intended.
More than one character expresses the attitude that while a lady of quality is worthy of protection, it’s perfectly acceptable to rape a “harlot”. It may be anachronistic to assume this play’s female author was engaging in an intentional dark satire of this hideous sentiment, but I hope she was.
“The Rover” is, at a minimum, quite worthy of revival. But despite a few dynamic performances, this production has a dragging pace and a cast that does a mediocre job of conveying the Restoration era language with clarity.