“If Aphra Behn were here tonight, I hope she’d forgive our trespasses,” the groovy hippie chick says in the prologue, touching a white marble bust perched nobly next to a hot pink lava lamp with a zebra-striped base.
So opens Liz Duffy Adams’ play “Or,” in which there are many trespasses -- terrific trespasses and glorious liberties, which historical muse Aphra Behn, if she be anything like legend and this character portrayal, would no doubt forgive but downright appreciate. The play is an entertaining exploration of themes including identity and disguise, feminism and sexuality, and societal paradigms, built around a fascinating female figure from the literary canon and packed with witticisms and dashing dialogue. And Southwest Shakespeare Company’s production of “Or,” is a buoyant and brilliant testament to the talent of the company.
A somewhat mysterious historical figure, British poet and playwright Behn ignites the imagination. Adams imagines Behn, a spy for Charles II in Belgium and one of the first women to write professionally during the Restoration era, as a free-spirited, fiercely smart lover of men and women who sometimes speaks in rhyme. At the outset of the play, the beautiful Behn has yet to write anything. She’s imprisoned for debt and looking to leave her espionage days behind her, and declares “I will have a godlike, eternal flame – I will be a playwright!”
Behn has a chance to land a production at a London theatre company, but only if she can finish her play by morning. And there’s a deluge of distractions – including her lovers Charles II and sassy actress Nell Gwynne, dazzling and demanding Lady Davenant, and Behn’s former spy partner, double-agent William. Over the course of one night, Behn must somehow fend off three different ornery (and horny) visitors, win William a pardon, save the king and finish the play.
Adams weaves the 1660s and the 1960s together well – character dialogue is a mix of well-worded poetics peppered with profanities and modern vocabulary; costumes shift from 1600s garb and ballroom masks to groovy robe get-ups and big afros; and the setting – Behn’s upper-class prison cell and writing studio – blends aristocratic white wood paneling and columns with trippy, “Alice in Wonderland”-esque checkered tile and several marble busts next to lava lamps.
The mixed motif works well to modernize the ambiance and create a cultural connection with Behn for the audience. Like the 1960s in the U.S., the 1660s were a time of social change and political protest. Music from the 1960s padded the play’s scenes and played during intermission (including Barry McGuire’s protest song “Eve of Destruction,” and the psychedelic hit “Incense and Peppermints” by Strawberry Alarm Clock).
Southwest Shakespeare Company’s cast for this production consisted of three actors playing seven different characters: Emily Mohney as Aphra Behn; Allison Sell as Nell Gwynne, Aphra’s jailer, and Aphra’s servant, Maria; and Jesse James Kamps as Charles II, William Scott, and Lady Devenant, owner of the Duke’s Company. Mohney plays Behn smart, displaying her single-minded determination with dramatic flair and great comedic timing. Sell and Kamps both deliver magnificent multiple performances. Sell's main role is that of the boyish, charming Gwynne, but she also excels as Behn’s servant, Maria – bent over, with a backside big enough to seat two, and even bigger attitude. Kamps’ portrayal of the flamboyant Lady Davenant, dressed in a puffy purple velvet gown with silver swirls and a feather boa, is fantastically bombastic. There’s a fair share of insider theatre jokes, since, after all, this is a play about a play, but the comedic insight extends to modern (or maybe timeless) tropes, like what a woman should or shouldn’t do. When Charles II suggests to Behn that she “stick to pastoral themes – say, the joys of cookery,” Behn’s eye-roll side-eye reaction transcends centuries.
We won’t give away the ending, but it’s a happy one involving swinging boudoir doors. Does Behn write “The End” and get a new beginning as a playwright? Or does she get derailed this night by one of many proverbial runaway trains? It’s a journey worth watching, maybe with rose-tinted sunglasses on.
Southwest Shakespeare Company’s production of “Or,”
Farnsworth Studio Theater at Mesa Arts Center
Through September 17
Photo: (left to right) "Or," cast members Emily Mohney, Jesse James Kamps, and Allison Sell. Photo by Mett Chesin.
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