Playwright: Aphra Behn, adapted by Melissa Albertario & Jason Peck. At: 20% Theatre Company at Rivendell Theatre, 5779 N. Ridge Ave. Tickets: 773-334-7728; email@example.com; $15-$20. Runs through: Nov. 18.
At first glance, you'd never guess that this was the first English play to be written by a womannot a hobbyist scribbling for friends, either, but professionally. The plot is the usual commedia-based muddle involving cultural clashes, exotic locales, haughty ladies, mercenary suitors, giddy lovers, clueless clowns and sly servants. What Melissa Albertario and Jason Peck's adaptation of Aphra Behn's 1670 comedy accomplishes is to highlight its female characters' observations on gender inequities in their society.
Our chief commentators are sisters Hellena and Florinda, the former determined to experience one last fling before entering a convent, and the latter despairing of marrying the officer she loves or escaping the unhappy match her brother has arranged for her. Ah, but the carnival season guarantees an abundance of masked revelers in the streets to conceal the two irreverent damsels and their likewise mischievous maidand whattaya know? Also enjoying the festivities are soldiers whose ranks include Florinda's beloved Colonel Belville, along with country boy Ned Blunt and their seagoing sidekick, the reckless Captain Willmore. Even the girls' stuffy sibling is venturing forth incognito on a quest for the favor of the courtesan Angelica, who prefers cold cash to pretty sentiments.
A milieu encouraging misrepresentation of identities is not without its hazardsFlorinda twice narrowly escapes carnal assault, and Blunt is taken in by the age-old "badger game"but Jessie Mutz's direction keeps the tone of the proceedings light and the stakes inconsequential, focusing on the witty repartee swapped by the various personae with stichomythic alacrity bespeaking classical training and engendering a comfortable familiarity with their milieu's language, fashions and swordplay. Indeed, the extensive by-play occurring in the corners of the stage away from the main action in many scenes often gives the impression of a much larger production compressed to the tiny playing area11 X 12 feet, not counting audience lapscarved out in Rivendell Theatre's storefront auditorium.
Aphra Behn's plays were sufficiently popular among Restoration audiences to provide her a steady income, but are rarely performed nowadays. If the mission of the 20% Theatre Company is to offer a showcase for the segment of women artists represented in their title, the craft and exuberance the ensemble brings to this standard-issue romantic romp renders the fulfillment of that goal more fun than you'd expect from a museum exhibit.