Anthony J. Piccione
- New York Theatre Critic
In 2016, a small theatre company in New York made waves when they presented an all-female production of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest in Central Park and Prospect Park. For the most part, the attention it received had little to do with it being an outdoor performance, or even that it was an all-female cast. Rather, it was because the entire cast performed the show sans clothing. The following summer in 2017, Torn Out Theater would return with an all-male production of Hamlet, also performed outdoors and in the nude. This year, however, the company decided to take things in a slightly different direction, with a mixed-cast nude performance of a play by history’s first recorded professional playwright.
Written centuries ago by Aphra Behn, The Rover is an often humorous play which remains surprisingly timely, in terms of the way it deals with issues of consent and sexuality. As dramaturge Cole J. Stern notes, “[the play] uses comedy to tear down the defenses we have come to expect for characters on stage … [and] constantly puts the characters in situations where they read and misread the signs of class and sex until they are forced to accept that the accepted assumptions of society are not acceptable at all.” In the era of #MeToo, when issues of sexual assault and consent are gaining broader attention in society, it certainly makes sense for Torn Out Theater to select a somewhat lesser-known play this year that might be more relevant to issues facing modern society today, rather than another Shakespearean production. Indeed, as I write this review, I can’t help but wonder what it would be like, if more theatre companies did exactly that, rather than resorting to the same old works by the same old playwright.
This year’s production was presented solely at the Music Pagoda in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, with lawn chairs for audience members being given on a first come, first serve basis. Under the direction of Artistic Director Pitr Strait, the play is staged wonderfully and utilizes the massive outdoor space and its architecture to great advantage, giving the talented and energetic cast plenty of space, over the course of the show.
From the top of the show, Clara Kundin, in the role of Hellena, effortlessly displays the romantic melodrama and over the top comedy that sets the overall tone for the play, as do Sarah Elizabeth Grace and Miranda McCauley, in the roles of sister Florinda and governess Callis respectively. Ryan Desaulniers displays off the energy and self-confidence you’d expect from Willmore, the “rover” himself whom makes aggressive sexual advances on Florinda later in the play, with Hannah Benjamin, Will Lippman, and Andrew Ricks all backing him up with fine performances as his friends Blunt, Belvile, and Frederick. Meanwhile, although he is (very clearly) not a woman himself, Colin James Ferguson certainly does a fine job at capturing the personality of a woman such as the sex worker Angellica. The cast is rounded out by Giordano Cruz (Don Pedro), Angela Dahl (Ensemble), Samantha Fox (Ensemble), Alice Gorelick (Moretta), Tucker Dally Johnston (Don Antonio), Sasha Sigel (Ensemble), & Bear Spiegel (Ensemble).
Then, obviously, I can’t possibly write a review of a show like this without addressing the aspect of it that is arguably the main reason why it’s attracted so many public attention. While I’d be saying the same things I just said about the performance, regardless of whether they were clothed, I must give credit to each of these actors for being bold enough to share that much of themselves, so to speak, in front of large crowds of mostly strangers for two hours, in the name of their art. The only thing I would question is how much having that much nudity really adds to the play, purely from a storytelling perspective. Nonetheless, I understand their reasoning behind it – wanting to highlight the subject of body positivity, which is certainly admirable – and while I can’t speak for everyone who was in the audience, my experience has been that once you get used to it, it’s hardly something you give much thought, as you’re watching the plot unfold.
Unfortunately, by the time you read this review, it’s highly likely that the last performance of this production will have ended. However, given what appears to be the resounding success of this production, and the fact that this is the company’s third summer in a row, I’m sure they’ll be back with another play next summer, as well. So if you don’t mind sitting outdoors while watching theatre, and if you aren’t easily distracted by onstage nudity, then keep an eye out for any announcements on their next productions. While the lack of clothing is what’s drawn the most attention, these actors deserve recognition for doing a very fine job at bringing this overlooked work in history to NYC audiences…with or without clothes.
“The Rover” – presented by Torn Out Theater – runs at Prospect Park Music Pagoda from August 16th-26th. For more information on future performances by this company, please visit www.tornouttheater.org