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'The Rover' opens at Southern Oregon University

British playwright Aphra Behn's witty and raunchy comedy "The Rover" follows sisters Florinda and Hellena as they travel to Naples during carnival time in pursuit of romance. The Spanish hold the Italian city, and the masquerading sisters soon find their escapades ensnared with some exiled English cavaliers, a thieving con-woman and a vengeful courtesan.

Mistaken identities, jilted lovers and old customs collide as the young women set about their marriage plans. Scholars point to strong feminist themes throughout the play and see it, in part, as a study of the different ways women strove to define themselves during the late 17th century.

Performances of this rip-roaring Restoration comedy are set for 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, March 1-3 and 8-10, and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, March 10-11, in the Main Stage Theatre in the newly remodeled Theatre Arts Building, 475 University Way, at Southern Oregon University in Ashland. Tickets are $21, $18 for ages 60 and older and $6 for full-time students and can be purchased at oca.sou.edu or by calling 541-552-6348.

Before 1642, English royalty supported theater. When the Puritan Revolution began, Charles I was beheaded and the country's leadership was taken over by Oliver Cromwell — the only time in British history that England was not ruled by a monarch. Until 1660, theater was outlawed. It was connected to the monarchy and with "immoral" non-Puritan values.

Charles II lived in exile at the court of Louis XIV, who loved theater, in France. He also lived in the Dutch Republic and the Spanish Netherlands. When the monarchy was restored, Charles II was invited to return to England. The Drury Lane and Covent Gardens became the first theaters officially licensed during this period.

It's impossible to appreciate "The Rover" without examination of its writer, Behn, whose own story is as interesting as her literary work. She was a loyal supporter of King Charles II during his exile, and he used her as a spy in Belgium. The story goes that the king did not pay for her services, and she landed in debtors' prison. A bankrupt widow, she turned to writing professionally as a way to support herself. Her first play, "The Forc’d Marriage," was produced only two years after her release from prison. And so began the career of the first female writer in English history. Behn became one of the prominent playwrights of the Restoration, famed for comedies brightened by wit, social commentary and female perspective.

Today, Behn is celebrated for her written work as well as her place in feminist literary history. "The Rover" stands as Behn’s most successful play. The bawdy hero, Willmore, is believed to be based on Behn’s close friend, poet and libertine John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester.

Dawn Monique Williams directs. Williams is a resident artist at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival — and dramaturg for its 2018 production of "Othello." In 2017, she directed OSF's "Merry Wives of Windsor," and, in 2016, earned a Princess Grace Theatre Fellowship.

It's been nearly three years since SOU began renovation and expansion of its Theatre Building, and completion is expected this spring. The Black Box Theatre is upgraded with state-of-the-art lighting, sound and projection equipment. The biggest part of the building's renovation is the addition of three new studio spaces. The costume and scene shops are expanded, and there are new acting studios, a design studio, student lounge, administration and box office facilities, and faculty offices.

Jefferson Public Radio's broadcast center makes its new home in the north wing of the building. The facility includes additional sound and broadcast studios and workspace for staff and volunteers. A large hall that serves as a reception space joins the north wing with the Theatre Building.

Megan Jones, left, Jamin Jollo and Angela Hernandez appear in Southern Oregon University's 'The Rovers.' [Photo courtesy of SOU]