nytheatre.com review by Lynn Marie Macy
November 8, 2009
"The incomparable Astrea," also known as prolific writer Aphra Behn (1640 - 1689), is described by Liz Duffy Adams as her "Muse" and the inspiration for her delightful new comedy Or, at the Women's Project. Behn is heralded as the first professional female playwright, earning her living solely by her pen. She is also widely regarded as the author of the first modern novel (Oroonoko, 1688). Aphra's transition from royalist spy to playwright at the Restoration of Britain's King Charles II (1660) is the central thrust of this well researched script. Returning from exile the King re-opened London's theaters after years of closure by the Puritans. He also brought with him from the Continent new ideas of enlightenment and...actresses.
What makes this comic Restoration-like romp (complete with verse, prose, and the occasional rhyming couplet) unique is Adams's interpolation of the 1960s into the 1660s, drawing full comparison between the two reactionary eras as times of cultural upheaval, unrestricted liberty, and individual expression. Aphra could easily have scrawled "Make Love Not War" across the wall, but of course her abilities are far more eloquent than that. Our heroine, irresistibly brought to life by the talented Maggie Siff, is charming, intelligent, undeterred, courageous, and triumphant. Her principal desire is to battle her way to the top in a man's world and to have a damn good time in the process.
Historical purists may shrink at some of playwright Adams's use of poetic license but as her theatrical prologue, spoken by actress Kelly Hutchinson, states:
...O blame not our hapless scribe
For that; She pleads a playwright's hallowed right
To have her way with people and events
Too far gone for most of you to know
Just as our heroine in her own time
Made free with truth where it might serve her will.
My advice to them without hesitation is to get over it, relax, and simply enjoy the spirit of the show!
At the opening of the play we discover Aphra in debtors' prison bargaining with her jailor for ink so that she may write the King to demand her pay for spying on the Dutch. She dreams of using her considerable writing abilities as a means to self-reliance when suddenly she receives a surprise visit that is to spring her from the "Clink," set her up in some posh new digs, and change the course of her life.
Later, Aphra is discovered feverishly working to complete her first script for production (historically The Forc'd Marriage, 1670). What follows is a comedic flurry of slamming doors and secreted lovers (both male and female) in the best bawdy traditions of Restoration comedy. She is alternately distracted from her work by the beautiful and famous actress Nell Gwynne, a desperate and mysterious masked man, Lady Davenant, theatrical manager of the Duke's Theater, and, to make matters even more complicated, the untimely arrival of the King! But her greatest potential roadblock could be in the person of William Scott, a former lover and fellow spy, who comes to her demanding refuge and assistance. What is a 17th century career girl to do?!
Kelly Hutchinson shines with versatility and spirit in the multiple roles of Nell Gwynne, the Jailor, and Maria, Aphra's loyal servant; and Andy Paris does extraordinary work in the roles of King Charles II, William Scott, and Lady Davenant. He lives up to every image one might have of the enlightened, ribald and insatiable King Charles II brought to life and put before us on the stage.
Wendy McClellan has directed the piece with heart, creativity, excellent pacing, and grounded humor throughout but for one instance. While it was perhaps, understandably difficult to resist a"campy" approach to Lady Davenant's tour de force monologue, the braver choice may have been to play the character for truth and trust the actor's abilities and Adams's wonderful text to convey the comedy of the scene. We the audience are suddenly disengaged from the story as we become acutely aware that we are watching a man in "drag" rather than Lady Davenant herself. This brief departure from theatrical truth also tends to lessen the stakes for us and for Aphra when things get truly dicey later on.
The set and costumes reflect a real sense of fun in their dual 1660s/1960s design, though slightly less successful are Maria and Lady Davenant's costumes which do not have much about them that echo the 1960s elements that are clear in every other aspect of the production. Also the representation of the debtor's prison is somewhat ineffective at clarifying Aphra's dire circumstances at the onset of the piece.
Aphra Behn once wrote: "I value fame as much as if I had been born a hero" and to many she has become just that; a trail-blazing historical icon. So whether you are a fan of Aphra Behn or are simply looking for creative, intelligently written comedy, top-notch, fabulous acting, and an inventive, entertaining story, you will not find a better show on any stage in New York City. I highly recommend you make your way to the Julia Miles Theatre to see Or, but it only runs to December 13th so you had best make your move now.