This wickedly clever Restoration comedy has enough twists and turns to keep the magical moments bouncing along from beginning to end. The opening prolog sets the tone beautifully, with the adorable Christine Demuth challenging the audience to ease the lines of demarcation between either and Or. Listen carefully to catch the underpinnings of the entire play which argues that one need not, should not, be locked into a closeted binary mindset, that the sky is the limit to explore—this all pronounced in exquisite iambic pentameter by the waifish Demuth in shimmering golden attire.
Even when the script gathers momentum and seems dangerously on the precipice of falling into standard farce, the playwright tosses in a concept or conceit that spirals the production back into a thought-provoking experience.
The play by Liz Duffy Adams riffs on the exploits of three actual historical characters and sparkles in the capable hands of three of the finest actors in town. From the opening scene and throughout, Demuth, as famed actress Nell Gwynne posing as a gentleman to get parts and opportunities denied the fairer sex, is the perfect foil for Charlotte Cohn playing the main character, historical playwright Aphra Behn. The two spar and tangle over artistic issues while tossing out fiery assessments about life as women artists, and morsels about the theater, actors, and playwrights. Who can resist the battle cry of “Damn the Pope-ish plot to assassinate the king, the production of my play is at stake!”
As Aphra Behn, Cohn has the chops and demeanor to hold the audience in rapt attention as she portrays the multiple aspects of her character – renegade spy, courtesan, loyal subject, but most of all, a woman desperately trying to write. Cohn portrays the nuances of her multi-faceted character gracefully with a strong, natural ease and is the ballast holding the piece together while the other characters whip around her in frenetic, quick-changing frenzy. On an extremely tight deadline to write a blasted play to save her life, literally, Behn attacks her project with zeal, all while trying to appease any and all who vie for her attention, including King Charles II himself. In one scene of writing like a possessed fury, she even ambidextrously starts writing with her left hand while her other is stuck in His Highness’s ardent embrace.
Moments like that steal the show, but the ultimate show-stopper is Jason Odell Williams in perfect command of all three of his winsome characters. Whether as the hot-blooded King posing as a masked country bumpkin or as Aphra’s thought-to-be executed booze guzzling lover, Williams delivers the goods with zesty appeal. Also, his rendition of the Duchess who commissions Aphra to write the play in the first place is mind-bogglingly good. If you missed seeing Williams in previous performances, now is the perfect opportunity to make up for lost time and catch him while you can. With clear execution and unrelenting articulation, he delivers his (as a her) rapid fire montage with fiendish glee, kind of like an Alexander Strain on acid. This scene alone is worth heading up to see the show.
The colorful, nearly psychedelic, set by James Fouchard is artfully designed and has large center doors to the bedroom and a walk in upright closet on the right. All entrances get a bang up workout allowing characters to exit in one form and return in completely different attire as someone else. Speaking of attire, lavish costumes by designer Melanie Clark are sumptuous while the whisky soaked lover is so grubby he reeks down to his cowboy styled hat and chaps.
Kudos to sound designer Ann Warren and sound board operator Matt Straka since musical interludes must hit with crystal sharp timing to cover a swoon, embrace, or a kiss.
The production has an easy going swagger and transitions effortlessly from upper crusty period piece to raunchy free-loving abandon with glee. Swift direction by Michael Stebbins keeps the time- twisting manipulations fresh and funny as the styles dip and weave through the numerous cultural tapestries. Are we in the 1660’s or the 1960’s with the purple hazed freedom to love the one you’re with? In a flash, the style morphs from conventional straight- laced and corseted iambic pentameter to expressions of peace, love and happiness brimming with free-flowing sexual tension and bosoms heaving to the sounds Barry White. It’s hilarious.
Or, contains bits of classical restoration comedy grooving to a funky beat, all while being deeply rooted in character motivation and an unmistakable intent to push the envelope of expectations out to the stratosphere. At the same time, however, woven between the raucous laugh lines are bits of reality with edges sharp enough to cut like a knife.
Not far from the satin and lace and mannered posturing, life was brutal and took no prisoners, as one of the characters describes in a chilling account of events towards the end. Adams covers an astonishing amount material in this regional premiere romp of a show, and Rep Stage whips it all up into a provocative froth. Yes, it’s got a strange title but trust me – Or, is irresistibly good.
Written by Liz Duffy Adams
Directed by Michael Stebbins
Produced by Rep Stage
Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Rating of the show: Highly Recommended