The true story of Aphra Behn is the epitome of “stranger than fiction.” In Round House Theatre’s rollicking production of Or, director Aaron Posner, Holly Twyford, and company gleefully romp through the fertile comedic ground of Behn’s journey from British royal spy to prison inmate to female playwriting pioneer. It’s sort of a Noises Off or One Man, Two Guvnors for the Restoration era, and it’s delightful.
It figures that Behn, Britain’s first professional female playwright, would rise to prominence in the aftermath of England’s “theatrical dark age”, enforced from 1649-1660 by Oliver Cromwell’s repressive, Puritanical Commonwealth government. Or, scribe Liz Duffy Adams clearly has an appreciation for the quirks of history – and the heavy sacrifices Behn endured.
Through the prism of England’s chaotic, hopeful Restoration, Duffy highlights themes of female ambition, sexuality, and freedom of expression in ways that clearly resonate in present day. Twyford’s opening monologue, delivered as herself from behind a solitary writing desk, immediately addresses the struggles and contradictions of Behn’s pathbreaking career and prepares the audience for a complex tale of ambition, love, and intrigue.
After her candid, fourth wall-breaking opener, Twyford steps into the role of Behn as she languishes in debtor’s prison. The former spy writes plaintively to newly-crowned King Charles II for help in paying debts incurred while in his service in South America. Enter Gregory Linington, who brings waves of resignation and hope to Behn, first as a foul-mouthed jailor and then as her posh royal savior Charles II. It’s a clever writerly trick by Duffy, and early evidence of solid casting and direction by Posner and his team.
After Behn finds salvation, the curtain pulls back to reveal a funky, artfully cluttered artist’s loft. Scenic designer Paige Hathaway and lighting designer Thom Weaver evoke Baz Lurhmann with a red-tinged assortment of worn chaise lounges and all manner of capes, masks, and costumes, watched over by a grand picture window. Hathaway’s set offers a romantic ode to the artist’s life, much the way Luhrmann portrayed the Bohemian existence of Toulouse Lautrec. From this cozy abode, Behn struggles to write her first full length play, weighed down by the theatrical glass ceiling and weight of history. Twyford is her usual captivating self, easily carrying the role of a complicated woman living in complicated times and ensnaring the audience often through facial expressions alone.
Making Behn’s job even more difficult is noted actress and fellow female theater pioneer Nell Gwynne, played by the magnetic Erin Weaver. Gwynne flits about the stage with elf-like glee, reveling in the pair’s newfound freedom and opportunity under Charles II’s liberal rule and theater patronage. She oozes with Cockney swagger and optimism while hinting at hidden scars earned during England’s repressive, plague-riddled past. Weaver later switches gears to deliver a scene-stealing appearance as Lady Davenant, fast-talking doyenne of the Duke’s Theatre Company – and Aphra’s demanding new patron. Festooned in lace, silk, and giant platform heels by costume designer Kendra Rai, Weaver leaves an indelible impression as she blitzes through a dizzying monologue on the challenges of pleasing rowdy English audiences.
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closes May 7, 2017
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Linington soon crashes the party as scheming Scottish spy William Scott and later reprises his role as Charles II, as if Behn’s life weren’t complicated enough. Linington gamely switches identities and costumes from minute to minute, resulting in several intentionally ridiculous exchanges. This rapid metamorphosis also extends to the play’s heightened sexual fluidity, typical of Restoration comedies. The characters frequently pair off in bawdy free-for-alls that reflect the Swinging 60’s more so than the traditional European societies typified by Shakespeare’s chamber comedies. Nothing like a Puritanical dictatorship to shake the populace loose from the rigid rules of romance.
Admittedly, the overall plot of Or, is rather thin and the stakes not very high. Attempts to inject drama in the form of imposing writing deadlines and shadowy royal plots largely fall flat from lack of attention during the play’s brisk 90-minute run time. But the production’s stellar cast and steady rhythm of humor, pathos, mistaken identities, sumptuous costumes, and Benny Hill-esque chases provide such rich sustenance that the audience shouldn’t care much at all.
Or, by Liz Duffy Adams. Directed by Aaron Posner. Featuring Holly Twyford, Gregory Linington, and Erin Weaver . Scenic designer: Paige Hathaway . Costume designer: Kendra Rai . Lighting designer: Thom Weaver . Sound designer: Christopher Baine . Props master: Kasey Hendricks . Dramaturg: Gabrielle Hoyt . Dialect coach: Tonya Beckman . Assistant director: Sara Dabney Tisdale . Production Stage Manager: Che Wernsman . Produced by Round House Theatre . Reviewed by Ben Demers.