Teenage girls in pajamas. Dogs. Cross-dressing. Naked cowboys. Teenage girls in pajamas.
Finally, theater for the rest of us.
Well, not quite. Josh Costello's ingenious spin on Aphra Behn's Restoration Comedy The Roveris anything but sleazy or lowbrow. It's actually quite innocent. Charming even.
While most adaptors contemporize an old play through dressing everyone in Old Navy garb or littering the stage with rubber chickens, sideways Red Sox caps and ham-fisted pop-culture references, Costello actually trusts the script to support his vision.
While that vision isn't exactly revolutionary—imagination is yummy!—the way Costello relates the story—through a quirky game of charades that slowly evolves into a metaphor on how imagination can (everyone clasp hands) bring people together—results in one of the cleverest and most well-intentioned plays glimpsed from this small, stinking corner of hell in some time.
We're at a slumber party. Repeatedly denied entry into the whispering clique of three older girls who'd rather talk about boys than creativity, Hellena tosses a copy of the book she's reading into the middle of the sister-circle. That finally gets their attention. She coerces her sister, Florinda (okay, maybe Costello could have changed these chicks' names), into acting out what she's reading, with the other girls reluctantly following.
Using stuffed animals for older characters, Barbie and Ken dolls to enact the steamier portions, and clothes yanked from a laundry basket to change their identities, the girls stage Behn's play. Initially, they seem embarrassed, rolling their eyes and mockingly mouthing the stilted language. As the play proceeds, their self-referential irony strikingly shifts, and they are swept up in the high romance and low goofiness of the comedy.
It's a cute, charming (okay, that's twice now; never again) effort that could easily have pitched into disaster. Restoration Comedies always feature convoluted storylines and trunkloads of characters. Using four actors to tell that story adds confusion. But Costello's highly talented and incredibly enthusiastic cast—Alex Bueno, Emily Clark, Vanessa Martinez and Barbara Suiter—provide an esprit de corps that infuses the 90-minute play with an energy too seldom experienced on local stages.
With so much theater so self-important and posturingly pompous, it's refreshing to see something intentionally light that still manages to make a keen point about how imagination can heal as much as it can distract. Maybe the meds kicked in at the right moment, but by play's end, The Rover made this salty dog feel downright warm and fuzzy.
THE ROVER AT THE CHANCE THEATER, 5552 E. LA PALMA AVE., ANAHEIM HILLS, (714) 777-3033. SAT., 4 P.M.; SUN., 6 P.M. THROUGH FEB. 20. $17-$20.
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