Here's a history lesson and play review in one.
DALLAS â" Alright class, itâs now time for a literary history lesson. Raise your hand if you know who Aphra Behn is? Anyone? ... No? Well then, let me tell you a bit about this most unusual woman of her day.
During the mid to late 1600s, during The Restoration period, Aphra Behn broke all gender barriers by becoming the first female dramatist. Her life was an action thriller movie and a Jane Austen novel all rolled into one. From 1666-67, she served as a spy for King Charles II and, incurring debts from it, served time in debtorsâ prison. While there, she wrote in the hopes of having a livelihood in the theatre upon her release. With the monetary assistance of the king, Behn was freed to pursue her desire.
You must remember that in that time period, for women not married or of royalty, making a living from more than the most demeaning of jobs was a near impossibility. As the precursor to a more modern day Mata Hari, and using her intelligence, wits, and her body when needed, Behn befriended the king and others in the theatre to have her first play produced by The Dukeâs Company in 1670. From there, she wrote more than 15 plays, books of poetry, and a novel, Oroonoko, for which she is widely known. Through all her notoriety, Behn was continually criticized and revoked, not only for her sexually scandalous plays and poems, but simply because she was an intelligent woman in an oh so manâs world.
Liz Duffy Adamsâ play Or at Bath House Cultural Center is a half historical, half fictitious play about Aphra Behnâs early writing days. The title comes from the common practice of plays of the period having two names, such as âThe Millinerâs Wife ... or Hatâs Off to You!â But Or, also explores all of our titles, all of our opposites in life â" in her case, was she a playwright or a whore, single woman or widow (in an age where being married brought more freedom, there were speculations whether she invented a husband only to have him conveniently die)? Adams has taken specific moments in time from Behnâs life and woven them into what I would call a âcomi-dramady,â asking her audience to make their own conclusions as to who this fairly remarkable woman was.
Sitting in her debtorsâ prison cell, Behn has been writing down ideas and thoughts for the beginnings of a play she hopes to have produced when and if she ever gets out. Enter King Charles II, in masked disguise, to pay her debts and have her as his mistress. Back at home, Behn takes up with actress Nell Gwynne, not only as a lover but also as another stepping stone to her goal. Add a spy/lover acquaintance and a cranky but loyal maid and you have the very makings of a Restoration comedy.
I was so glad to read in an interview with actress Jessica Cavanagh, who plays Ms. Behn, that she was trying to figure out the play herself. âIt starts out as the story of her life and wanders into a French farce,â said Lauren Smart of Theater Jones. That made me feel better as I, too, was trying to figure out in which direction playwright Adams was headed. There is so much exposition in the beginning between Charles II and Behn that your mind starts to wander a bit. Then suddenly, sheâs in her parlor at home and all sorts of people are coming and going who most likely never met each other in real life. And then thereâs this supposed parallel connection Adams is making between female empowerment in the 17th century and our 1960s sexual revolution. Yes, there are multiple bed partners, bisexual innuendoes, and a bit of cross-dressing, but frankly, the comparison was not clear. Even the modern slang and four letter words, no doubt used back then as well, did nothing to portray the playwrightâs supposed intent.
Maybe the costuming had something to do with it. Tight, low-bodiced gowns, menâs long wigs, and feathered chapeaus were mixed with sequined hot pants, fishnets, and leather pants, but Ryan Matthieu Smithâs choices were all too tame, too safe when, if the playwright (and director) really wanted to highlight the time period parallels, there should have been distinctly, visually obvious decisions made. A mere hint of the '60s revolution was equal to no comparison at all. There were as many quick changes in character clothing, as in Greater Tuna, and it was a clever choice, as was the fashion in those days to have their faces masked or hidden under wig curls and duster cap until the character was established by the audience. Some fine trickery and lots of layering was in place when changes were simply too quick to accomplish without someone tap dancing on stage while waiting. The occasional tilted wig or piece of clothing was quickly rectified and I marveled at all their dexterity.
The set design also leaned almost exclusively into the 1600s with nothing to suggest the 1960s. Clare Floyd DeVriesâ Restoration-esque wall-papered panels blended with the printed screen and marbled black and white flooring. A simple writing desk, upholstered chair, and ottoman and side tables made up Behnâs boudoir. A large, arched wooden wardrobe closet was the main focal point and various busts and knick knacks of the time were placed about. I humorously noted that two of the small black and white portraits on the walls looked to be both Charles II and Aphra Behn, or nearly like them.
Lighting by Jaymes Gregory was generic for the most part. The use of a single âprison barsâ gobo was efficiently used to indicate her time there, then a turning of the screen and exchanging of chairs made her prison cell become a part of her boudoir. Lynn Mauldin and Rebekka Koepke chose their prop pieces well, with the etched glass liquor bottle and glasses, duck feather pen exchanged with a colorful plumed one, yellowed manuscript papers ,and a rather silly wooden pistol.
I loved Pam Myers-Morganâs music choices, starting with a simple harpsichord in her pre-show to set the period, then switching it up with rock and hip-hop beats, moving into trumpet and piano duet jazz and ending with what might be called musical theatre pizzazz â" a glorious mash-up of sound that all worked amazingly well. One of my pet peeves was committed however, that being a door knock sound effect coming from the side opposite from the door â" it always, always takes the audience out of the magic and into a technical faux pas.
Or, is written for three actors with two playing three characters each. Elly Lindsay was brought in as dialect coach for the various English accents the characters used. For the most part, she assisted the three actors in projecting theatrically acceptable upper class British accents, using the customary superiority âup liltsâ to their sentences with no down ending inflections. The other accents, however, were hit and miss and seemed to be mainly left up to the actors to clarify their different characters. Only occasionally did a Texas twang hit the air but overall, the accents were good and the characters vocally well-defined.
Though Cavanagh played only Aphra Behn, all three actors were a 90 minute whirlwind of constant activity. In that low-cut, tightly-cinched flowing gown of hers, Cavanagh climbed on chairs, desks, and her lovers with apparent ease. I loved her choice to portray Behn as both determined and rather zany. While giving Behnâs life and accomplishments the honor she deserves, an historical diatribe would have been much too boring and painful to sit through. After all, much of Adamsâ play is fictitious and thank goodness Director Terri Ferguson recognized that enough to make Cavanaghâs role one of great laughter and enjoyment.
Using hood, cloaks, duster coats, and masks, John Venable portrayed Behnâs jailor, Charles II, and William Scot, Behnâs spy and former lover. All three characters made moves on Behn, but it was Charles she needed most and that stole her heart. Only slightly changing accents and dialects, Venable easily switched into each character. His king was both dignified and bawdy, especially in those tight, tight black leather pants â" ouch! William Scot was rather bumbling and less the spy and ex-lover than you would expect, but his choices worked for a man who was supposedly determined to kill the king, had he known he was in the next room!
I canât recall when Iâve seen an actress portray three such distinctly different characters as well as Morgan Laure Garrett did in this play. Playing the cross-dressing, real life actress Nell Gwynn, then Behnâs crotchety maid and then the real life, overly flamboyant theatre proprietor, Lady Davenant, she was funny and marvelous to watch. Using very large costuming for the maid helped hide the costumes underneath, but her exits and entrances were really close together and, with Lady D, she entered in a huge, satin gown with hooping that always reminds me of side tables (sorry costumers for not remembering the name of that particular style). Garrettâs dialects ranged from standard British to some form of Cockney to the overly upper crust accent I described above. Her choices all stemmed from a place of fun and each of her characters was all that and more.
This isnât a heavily thought-provoking sort of play. At the end, when Aphra Behn has finally completed her play and Nell and Charles are reading it, she states, âThere isnât any plot, is there?â She took the words right out of my mouth. But, in this case, I donât think it mattered much, as Echo Theatreâs production of Or, was enlightening and entertaining. The laughter was easy and often, and was, all in all, a good evening of theater. The company is focusing their entire new season on the works of Aphra Behn, and now that we know who she is, it will be intriguing to see and hear just what she has to say.
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