We know so little about the remarkable Restoration-era novelist/playwright/spy Aphra Behn (1640?-1689) that her life can serve as a tabula rosa upon which other artists project their own ideas and issues. In Empress of the Moon, playwright Chris Braak has done exactly that. The ideas are not particularly new or startling, but in the slenderized version being presented by Forearmed Productions, polemics take a back seat to story, and didacticism yields to wisdom.
Here’s what we do know about Behn: At one point she went to Surinam, on the coast of South America. There is some evidence, not conclusive, that she began her career as a British spy there. Toward the end of her life she wrote a novel, “Oroonoko,” about a man who was sold into slavery by a romantic rival and who was then taken to Surinam.
We do know that in 1666 the Crown sent her to Antwerp (which was then part of the Netherlands) with orders to develop an intimate relationship with William Scot, an Englishman suspected of being a double agent. It is unclear whether she was successful in her mission but we know she was not successful in getting paid. She landed in debtor’s prison, and was compelled to turn to playwriting for money. She was prolific and successful but still died broke.
Braak’s text turns much of this inside out. In the first part, Behn (Hughes) is in Surinam under orders from the Crown’s representative, Mr. Scott (Jennifer Huttenberger) to seduce the Governor, Lord Willoughby (Alexandra Blouin). Instead, she falls in love with Oroonoko (Sarah Robinson), with disastrous consequences.
In the second part, Behn (now played by Robinson) is in Antwerp, disguised as a man. She meets up with the sinister Dr. Adis (Blouin) whose principal interest seems to be to find someone who will rekindle the interest of his wife, Maria (Hughes) in having sex. Mr. Scott reappears, now in some disgrace, steps in, and does the job. In the meantime Behn makes it her mission to turn the courtesan Valeria (Kristen Norine) away from her sordid profession and into a life of self-worth and self-esteem, with disastrous results.
In the final section, Behn (now played by Laura McWater, who has hitherto served as narrator) is in debtor’s prison, subject to an inquisition about her sex life from a cleric (Blouin) as a condition of being paid for her spy work. (The idea that Charles II, the most licentious King in English history, would object to paying a spy because she had sex is a little hard to believe.) Behn is humiliated, but eventually decides that it is something to be proud of, and not ashamed. The results are not disastrous.
Braak is not a subtle writer (as you can tell from his website) and he litters his text with screeds about his political beliefs. At one point, for example, we see a reenactment of Behn’s best play, Emperor of the Moon, in which the protagonist goes to the Moon to discover that it is populated by creatures who prize love over war. But that’s not what Emperor of the Moon was at all.
Empress of the Moon: The Lives of Aphra Behn
by Chris Braak
at Sprenger – Atlas Performing Arts Center
1333 H Street NE
Washington, DC 20002
Details and tickets
They take a lot of risks – using three actors to play Aphra, placing women in men’s roles, having the same actor play different characters in the same scene – but Forearmed has the chops to pull it off. Hughes, Robinson, and McWater play Behn in the same way, and I was never disturbed by a transition, despite the fact that the actors do not at all look like each other. Blouin plays a lot of different characters but establishes great separation among them.
It’s tough for women to effectively play men, but Blouin and Huttenberger were both good. For Huttenberger as Scott, gender was less important than that she project a self-assured take-charge attitude, which she did successfully. She played some ensemble roles; the difference between them and her Scott was palpable.
Forearmed plays Empress as if it were a Restoration Comedy itself – loud, big, boisterous, and obvious. At first it’s a little grating – Norine as Behn’s sister in the first scene almost dips into caricature – but you’ll get used to it. In fact, the play gets a little draggy in the second scene, which is complicated and detailed, but rights itself in the final confrontation between Behn and Valeria, in which Norine is particularly strong.
Empress is not for everyone, but it’s lively and provocative and deserves a larger audience than it got on opening night.
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