LENOX, MASS. — The men in the moon will come down to earth in search of love this summer when Aphra Behn's rarely seen science-fiction themed Restoration comedy "The Emperor of the Moon" opens Friday in Shakespeare & Company's open air Rose Footprint Theatre in Lenox, Mass.
Director Jenna Ware helms her fifth family friendly Commedia dell'Arte-style adaptation at the Rose complete with signature fast-paced antics, whimsical costumes, live music and songs and, on this occasion, an unearthly, otherworldly encounter.
Behn, the most famous female English playwright of the 17th century, has imagined a world where two cousins raised as sisters conspire to win approval of their marriage choices from their father, a philosopher obsessed with the moon, by disguising their eager suitors as visiting lunar lords. They co-opt their servants to join in the caper.
"Everybody's pretending to be something they're not," Ware said. "They're disguised in costumes, making up fake accents, and speaking English as if it were an intergalactic second language."
She describes designer Brianna Wells' fanciful costumes as "an eclectic mix of colors and patterns, [with] a very strange and delightful mix of panniers, flowers and bloomers." In contrast, the "moon people" live without color in a black and white world filled with interesting shapes and twirly wired head pieces, she said.
Ware introduces a new composer this year, Pioneer Valley singer-songwriter and theater maker Emma Ayres, whose use of music in the play runs the gamut from the opening welcome song to lively beat boxing.
The cast of 12, who also perform in Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" on the outdoor stage at the Mount in Lenox and teach in the company's popular "Riotous Youth" summer education programs, includes returning actors Greg Boover, Caroline Calkins, Lori Evans, Colin Gold, Kaileela Hobby, Marcus Kearns, Caitlin Kraft, Zoe Laiz, Conor Seamus Moroney and Concetta Russo, as well as newcomers Dara Silverman and Ashton Muniz.
"The driving style of comedy is a great desire for success," said Ware, "and the comedy comes in the effort and failures and woes that happen along the way. I like that kind of humor, I'm very drawn to it."
She is also a big fan of the open-sided Rose Footprint Theatre tent, which she uses to great effect with spirited sword fights choreographed by Jonathan Croy and exhilarating chase scenes that encompass the entire setting.
"The space is just wonderful," Ware said. "I have this stage in front of me and the fields and the audience, the expanse is huge. And you're so close, you're right there, it really is a very collective experience with actor and audience, we're all lit the same."
More widely known for her adventure play "The Rover," Behn wrote "The Emperor of the Moon" late in her career. While she was not a contemporary of the Bard, Ware sees evidence she was influenced by his plays.
"We all truly believe that [Behn] must have seen 'Romeo and Juliet'," Ware said. "There's a scene at the beginning between the servant Scaramouch and the young woman Elaria that follows some of the same arc and drama as the Juliet and her Nurse scene."
Along with the challenge of young love, both plays also involve serious contemplation of the moon.
It wasn't uncommon to believe in moon men and lunar life at the time "The Emperor of the Moon" was written, said Shakespeare & Company co-artistic director Ariel Bock. What was unusual was to find a successful, independent female playwright like Behn, who was widely recognized for her considerable talents — and rather shocking lifestyle — and is buried along with other distinguished notables in London's Westminster Abbey.
Audiences can catch a glimpse of her extraordinary life as both a prolific writer and international spy for King Charles in the bawdy comedy "Or," by Liz Duffy Adams — one of three women playwrights included this summer at Shakespeare & Company — which begins performances in the Tina Packer Playhouse on July 23.
"I'm always on a hunt for plays for the Rose," Ware said. "[When] I came across this one, because I knew we were doing 'Or,' I thought it would be exciting to highlight this female writer in two places in our season."
Along with the madcap mayhem, crazy costumes and entertaining action, "The Emperor of the Moon" runs a brisk 75 minutes and begins at the family friendly time of 5:30 p.m., all designed to appeal to audience members of all ages And, because it's Commedia, Ware assures that "all is well at the end."
ON STAGE ...
What: 'The Emperor of the Moon' by Aphra Behn
Where: Shakespeare & Company's Rose Footprint Theatre, Lenox, Mass.
When: 5:30 p.m. Friday, July 15 through Aug. 20
Cost: $15 adults, students and children free
Information and Schedule: shakespeare.org (413) 637-3353