note: entire contents copyright 2011 by Sheila Barth
The real-life, sketchy story of Aphra Behn, 17th century spy-turned-playwright who’s thrown into debtor’s prison unable to pay her bills, then supported by King Charles II, is fascinating. It’s filled with intrigue, ambition, sexuality and suspense.
Set in England’s controversial Restoration Era, 1666-1670, during political and religious upheaval, and immediately following the Great Plague and London Fire, Liz Duffy Adams’ play, “Or,” making its fourth appearance nationally, has a fountain of facts to draw from. Instead of capitalizing on the dramatic historic aspects, though, Adams’ farcical one-act, 90-minute play takes literary license, reducing the 17th century poet-playwright’s story to vaudevillian slapstick. Adams borrows her style from Shakespeare’s comedies, using narrative, mistaken identity, masks and confusion as her tools, thus deflating the dramatic clout of Behn’s pluck and accomplishments.
Details about Behn’s life and times are sketchy, but Adams does include snippets of her brief career as a spy, her support from King Charles II, who is a closeted supporter of Catholicism and is restored to the throne after a political upheaval. Adams also highlights Charles’ willingness to reopen theaters and grant women the right to perform on stage and become writers.
“The world is changing,” actress Nell Gwynne announces triumphantly. “The Puritans had their day. It’s now our time for a Golden Age. Girls can be actors, playwrights....This is our utopia,” she tells Behn, portrayed here as a passionate poet and playwright. Behn became the first professional female writer in the English language.
Although Adams doesn’t allude to it, Gwynne was the first lady of the stage and King Charles‘ mistress, who bore him two sons.
Instead of keeping audiences in suspense, rapt on this powerful story, Adams focuses on farcical factors, as theatergoers marvel at actors Hannah Husband and Ro’ee Levi’s entertaining, rapid-fire costume and character changes.
With split-second timing, opened and slammed doors, talented Levi converts from the extravagantly wigged and garbed King Charles II to destitute, conniving spy, William Scott, and a gruff, boorish jailer. Versatile actress Husband whirls from beautiful, shapely, bisexual Nell Gwynne, to Behn’s cockney-clucking servant, Mariah, to the rapid-speaking, portly, progressive-thinking, theater patroness, Lady Davenant. Stacy Fischer as Behn is the anchor, or fulcrum, to the zaniness and intrigue occurring all around her. She must put down her quill to squelch an alleged overthrow plot by the Catholics, avoid King Charles’ encountering former spy, William Scott, avoid yet encourage a liaison between Charles and Nell, and get her play finished on deadline.
Adams creates a parallel between historic, political and economic circumstances in the 17th century and today, tossing in quips that resonate with contemporary and 1960’s dissension and events globally. She also takes a stab at gossip among thespians, when Nell tells Aphra, “Everyone knows you were a spy.” Some things never change....
The play opens with Fischer talking on a cell phone, partially dressed in her costume that covers her jeans underneath. Fischer explains the play’s quirky title, “Or,” saying centuries ago, play titles oftentimes had an alternative explanation or second script, then plunges into an explanation of that little word that can make a big difference.
The big difference here is the cast, under Daniel Gidron’s tight direction. Dahlia Al-Habieli’s set, Emily Woods Hogue’s fine costumes, John Cuff’s lighting and Chris Bocchiaro’s sound design keep the action flowing fast and furiously.
BOX INFO: Boston premiere of one-act, 90-minute play, written by Liz Duffy Adams, presented by the Lyric Stage Company of Boston now through Nov. 6 at 140 Clarendon St., Boston. Performances are Wednesdays, Thursdays at 7:30 p.m.; Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 3,8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m.; also, Nov. 2 at 2 p.m. Post-show talkback, Oct. 29, after the 3 p.m. show. Tickets, $25-$56; seniors, $5 discount; student rush tickets, $10; also group rates. Call 617-585-5678 or visit lyricstage.com