Thinking Cap Theatre, the Fort Lauderdale-based company known for its stylized, outside-the-box productions, will embark this weekend on arguably its most ambitious show to date. Director Nicole Stodard’s take on Aphra Behn’s “Emperor of the Moon,” a three-act Restoration comedy from 1687, will feature 15 actors—Thinking Cap’s largest cast—and a dozen musical instruments performed live, from guitar and mandolin to clarinet, drums and slide whistle.
“We keep calling it the play with everything,” Stodard says. “Behn wrote this at a time when all of these different art forms were emerging, and shaping culture in London. So it has elements of commedia dell’arte improvisational theatre, it has elements of French farce, opera, dance—it’s a testament to all of these different art forms that were permeating the culture. She’s commenting on how the stage was diversifying and how the theatre scene was exploding.”
Stodard knows more about the work of Aphra Behn than perhaps Behn herself. In 2017, she completed her dissertation on “Aphra Behn on the Contemporary American Stage.” There’s a lot of material to mine: A contemporary of Shakespeare, Behn is widely cited as the first professional female playwright. She was employed as a spy by King Charles II, but suffered years of debt and nonpayment for her contributions. She would go on to succeed in poetry, fiction and plays, often expressing sly, progressive views on sexuality and female pleasure. Behn was most famously rhapsodized by Virginia Woolf as the person who provided all women “the right to speak their minds.”
“Emperor of the Moon,” Behn’s second-most-produced play, sounds like science fiction, and in a way it is. “The play was coming out at a time when modern science as we know it was just emerging, and metaphysics and the black magic idea was being questioned in a big way,” Stodard says. “The doctor character is at the center of that conversation, because he believes in the bogus science.”
She’s referring to the play’s Don Quixote-esque protagonist, Dr. Baliardo (Michael Gioia), a figure so consumed with his amateur astronomical studies that he neglects the romantic tumult occurring among his family, particularly his daughter (Leah Sessa) and niece (Jeanine Gangloff Levy). Determined to marry different suitors than Baliardo has in mind, they stage a play-within-the-play—a delightfully common trope in Restoration comedy—to dupe him.
“The play works with this idea of lightness and enlightenment and darkness and stupidity,” Stodard says. “And there’s a ton of physical comedy in it. There are two comic servant characters from the commedia dell’arte tradition that Clay Cartland and Tim Davis play, named Scaramouche and Harlequin. They have really good rapport. The play is fun; it’s visually spectacular, at least it’s intended to be, and we’re trying to make it as spectacular as we can in our little space.”
“Emperor of the Moon” allowed Stodard the opportunity to embrace the period-ness of the play, and to employ centuries-old but still effective clowning techniques and masks—devices new to many of her actors, for whom 20thcentury acting styles form the majority of their résumés.
“Most actors have a little taste of more stylized theatre in their training, but it’s certainly not the bulk of it,” Stodard says. “It makes you feel much more playful to do something like this. It taps into the inner child in all of us. We have balloon art, and all kinds of silly things. It’s an old play that young people will be able to enjoy. Sometimes [in Restoration theatre], the language is so hard that it can be off-putting, but I think the nonverbal ways the story is told, with all the physical comedy, is a show in and of itself.”
“Emperor of the Moon” opens in previews this weekend with free performances for up to 100 students at 8 p.m. May 11, 3 and 8 p.m. May 12 and 5 p.m. May 13. The show’s official opening night is May 18. Tickets run $40 general admission and $20 for students for performances running May 18-June 3. For tickets, call 954/610-7263 or visit vanguardarts.org. Thinking Cap’s performance space, The Vanguard, is at 1501 S. Andrews Ave., Fort Lauderdale.