You might not expect the most exciting new theatrical production in Austin to come in the form of an almost 350-year-old play; don't underestimate the amazing talent of Hidden Room Theatre.
Hidden Room is known for its unique looks at classics from both Shakespeare and other playwrights of an earlier age, but its latest offering takes the company into somewhat new ground. Straying from the comparatively straight-laced double entendres of the Bard, director Beth Burns has delved into the smuttiness of Aphra Behn’s “The Rover or the Banish’d Cavaliers” (playing through March 3).
Behn was the first professional female English playwright, writing during the Restoration period in England during which sexually explicit language was welcomed to the stage after all public theater had been banned for almost two decades during the Puritan regime headed by Oliver Cromwell. “The Rover,” written by a woman, focuses as much on female sexual desire as it does masculine lust, making it unique not only for its time but even by today’s standards.
It is also epic in scope, with a cast of almost 20 actors, live musical accompaniment and two intermissions. The story follows the misadventures of a wide cast of young would-be lovers in Naples during Carnival time, with plenty of mistaken identities, duels, mischievous plots, comedic encounters, and unexpected turns toward pity, sadness and the threat of even greater darkness. Burns handles these moments that rightly feel jarring to modern audiences with a wise sensibility. Her direction allows for meta-commentary that critiques these moments, which show the sense of danger that women experience every day, whether in Restoration England or contemporary America.
What makes Hidden Room’s production of “The Rover” so exciting is the embrace of its large scope by Burns and her talented cast and crew. Every single scene begins with a burst of energy (aided and abetted by a layering of '80s British rock music and style, particularly in the form of sumptuous costumes designed by Aaron Flynn), creating a growing sense of momentum that carries along every scene whether the tone is hilarious slapstick or serious heartbreak. Standouts among the cast include Amber Quick as the earnest, infatuated Florinda; Valoneecia Tolbert as Helene, a young woman just discovering her sexual awakening; Justin Scalise as the smarmy, affected Don Antonio; and Joseph Garlock as the swaggering, self-assured titular rover, Willmore.
Hidden Room’s “The Rover” is a sexy, dangerous, deliciously thrilling epic of stagecraft and acting prowess that is not to be missed. After all, shows like this only come along every three and a half centuries or so.
("The Rover" continues through March 3 at Hidden Room Theatre, 311 W. Seventh St. $17-$35. Information and tickets: hiddenroomtheatre.com.)