I feel that I must openly admit that I had a predisposition to like, “Or”, Liz Duffy Adams’ play that opened at Live Arts Upstage Theatre last weekend because I am enamoured of its subject, Aphra Behn. Behn who lived from 1640 to 1689 had an amazing life as a spy and possibly mistress to King Charles II of England also holding the distinction of being the first woman recorded in Western civilization as supporting herself as a writer. Accused of being a libertine, Behn’s works are rife with sexual explicity and Adams sets out to create a play about Behn that Behn might have written herself. There is comedy in the form of running jokes, rapid costume changes, cross dressing and whack-a-mole like entrances and exits. There is also tragedy as Aphra is torn between saving her lover and her loyalty to the king.
The story is about Behn’s release by Charles II form debtor’s prison, where she landed due to his tardiness in paying her for her work as a spy. The play then focuses on one crazy night in which Aphra must write a stellar play while juggling lovers and thwarting a plot to kill the king. Adams opens it with rhyming prose. At one juncture the Jailer (hilariously played by Claire Chandler) begs Aphra(Jen Downey) not to rhyme during their conversation about ink while Aphra persists. The bit recalls the scene in The Princess Bride where Vizzini tells Fezik and Inigo to stop rhyming. (You know the one:
Inigo Montoya: Fezzik, are there rocks ahead?
Fezzik: If there are, we all be dead.
Vizzini: No more rhymes now, I mean it.
Fezzik: Anybody want a peanut?
Thanks for indulging me with that.)
Adams soon moves her characters into verse laced with humor and often foul language particularly from Nell Gwynne (also portrayed by Chandler) then ties it up neatly with rhyme at the end.
What worked in this production was wonderful and what didn’t work was rather “meh” making for a total score of 8 out of a possible 10 on the Greatness scale.
The actors were directed with care by Christina Courtenay who masterfully blocked and built relationships with her actors on a tiny stage. Courtenay obviously loves this play and she commands all the production elements to deliver that message. The pacing is brisk and informed and each character is fleshed out to the fullest.
Jen Downey makes a bold post-women’s liberation, Aphra, robust and sure of herself, delivering lines with precision timing and kissing her fellow actors with great zeal. She stomps about the small stage with the gusto of a pirate captain capturing her lovers then swooping in for the kill except when (typical or writers) she is writing and all else is unimportant. There might have been an iota more respect for the customary restraint of movement of the period in her performance but we are led to believe during the preamble that the 17th and 21st centuries might criss cross a bit so the error is absolved.
Chris Patrick who gleefully attacks three roles in the show, King Charles II, double spy William Scott, and theater owner, Lady Davenant, displays his gift for comedic line delivery from the get go extracting loud laughter from the audience at key points. He demonstrates versatility via distinct interpretation of each character (as does Chandler in her three roles) but falters into an indeterminate accent as Scott. (Though his Lady Davenant accent was appropriately hysterical as she was deftly played over-the-top.) Then there was the chest hair revealed as Charles II comes out clothed in a robe at the end of the second act, that was supposedly purposely shaved to form a rectangular shape. The oddity of the geometric shape was so disturbing and distracting that I fail to recall the lines delivered as the V in the robe revealed it. I was not alone in irksomeness as it was quite the topic of conversation amongst patrons upon departure from the theatre.
The shining star of the production, however, is Claire Chandler as Aphra’s jailer, Aprha’s crotchety maid, Maria and actress, Nell Gwynne. Part of her appeal is how she amps up the characters but plays properly to the small space -there is depth and variety in her performance without the overblown volume. She especially glows as Nell, the bi-sexual, cross-dressing actress who becomes mistress to Charles II. Chandler’s Gwynne is a good mix of masculine and feminine energy making her convincing and well-rounded as a character. She oozes universal sensuality mixed with impish charm.
Also deserving comment are the beautiful costumes designed by Stepahanie Connock, which are often changed within seconds (three cheers to Assistant Stage Manager and Dresser, Barbara Roberts!). They were all pretty and correct for the time but Aphra’s green overlay which was too large to begin with kept coming unhooked at the top causing a constant annoyance.
Overall “Or” is quite funny and well worth seeing.
Catch it at Live Arts on select dates from now until May 4.
Get out there and get cultured.
The Culture Maven
PS: If you know of something interesting in terms of art and/or culture coming up in the Valley aka Lexington to Harrisonburg, shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and let me know. Put “culture nuts” in the subject bar. Thanks. M
Post Publication Note:
This morning someone suggested that the rectangle shaped chest hair Chris Patrick was sporting as Charles II was a nod to Austin Powers. It has been such a long time since I have seen an Austin Powers movie coupled with the lack of a coherent link between the film to the play other than they are about Brits, I failed (as did everyone else I spoke with) to catch the reference (if indeed there was that connection).