Lost in This Masquerade

Now celebrating its 12th season, New York Classical Theatre has staged peripatetic dramatic productions in Battery Park, Central Park, and, in its indoor debut, the World Financial Center, with last year’s Hamlet. Again partnering with Arts > World Financial Center (who curate a series of free performances, exhibitions, installations and festivals), NYCT’s delightful production of the rarely produced Restoration comedy The Rover makes ingenious use of the soaring downtown structure as audience members follow the show around the 3.5-acre site

Every 10-15 minutes the scene — and thus the scenery — shifts. Random passersby either ignore the proceedings and go on their way or become part of the audience. When this production of The Rover began, there were about 40 people watching. By the end, the number had swollen to at least 120, if not more.

Written by Aphra Behn, the first female playwright in the English language, The Rover is “a timely fit for Women’s History Month this March” (per the press release) for its feminist themes and presaging of women’s rights. Behn served as a spy under King Charles II, and The Rover cleverly plays with the ideas of perception, identity, and disguise.

Set in 17th century Naples during Carnival, the morally murky world of this comedy of manners is filled with dirty jokes and language battles between the masked and masquerading principals. Adopting the structure of William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing and further upping the ante with an additional couple, The Rover pairs up a trio of jaunty lads with three similarly natured ladies. Trickery is the name of the game for all the lovers-to-be (with a special shout-out to costume designer Oana Botez-Ban for dressing everyone in varying shades of appropriately passionate red).

The main couple, Willmore and Hellena, bear a striking resemblance to the Bard’s Benedick and Beatrice, with their witty banter and constant one-upmanship. The cocksure M. Scott McLean is well-endowed with ample charm and good looks, fitting for the man-about-town Willmore. And April Sweeney as the saucy Hellena, destined for the nunnery yet anxious to sow her own wild oats in the guise of a sexually liberated gypsy, is a fitting foil for the rakish womanizer.

Purists beware: this version of The Rover is substantially cut to a lightening fast 80 minutes. A major subplot in the original text has been completely excised, but the main crux of the story remains the same: a day in the life of a libertine.

The constant motion of the show — including sword fights and live music — adds a ritualistic element to the proceedings, as the actors and audience members go up and down staircases, around pillars, across mezzanines, and through hallways. The action of the play takes place in front of, beside, behind, and around the spectators.

The involvement of the audience and the elimination of the fourth wall is a particularly intriguing aspect of the show. Spectators can even volunteer to be Carnival “revelers.” The brief interludes between scenes, as you walk from place to place, also allow for quick conversation about what has just happened or what is to come, unlike a traditional theater setting, where talking is strictly verboten.

The production ingeniously melts into its decidedly non-classical setting, especially in the Romeo and Juliet-esque balcony scene where we first meet the alluring courtesan Angellica Bianca (Vanessa Morosco) and the wacky and aerobic scene in the dome-ceilinged lobby of One World Financial Center that makes clever use of the staircase and escalators. The polychromatic marble so prevalent in the design of WFC helps differentiate each space into unique locations.

The final scene, staged in the vaulted Winter Garden, is a frantic farce of masks and unmasking, with the audience creating a circle around the action. Unfortunately, because of the enormity of the space, many of the actors’ voices got swallowed up, especially if they were facing away from you.

Likewise, the jovial song-and-dance pageantry that ends the show is somewhat stunted by its surroundings. Where it should be bold and brash, it is subdued and lacking in volume. Perhaps miking the able-voiced McLean as Willmore, who leads the celebration, would correct this problem.

But minor quibbles aside, The Rover is great fun and a one-of-a-kind theatrical experience. Under the tight direction of Karin Coonrod and the expert trimming of the text by artistic director Stephen Burdman, the entire troupe meets the challenge of staging the show in such an unusual space with vim and vigor. Roving around the World Financial Center as a fellow Carnival carouser in The Rover is a true joy.

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