All Things Entertaining and Cultural
Aphra Behn should be lauded among women, especially among woman playwrights. She wrote for the theater in an era when such work was the exclusive province of men. Not only that, she wrote at a time, the Restoration of the British monarchy under Charles II after decades of the Puritan Commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell, when women were at last permitted to portray their gender, and do pants roles, on stage.
Behn was a woman of intrigue in addition to being one of letters. A committed royalist, she served Charles and his brother, James, the Duke of York (later James II), as a spy in Sumatra, a Dutch holding, in the early days following their return to a power they wanted to preserve. She was also known for her adventures in the bedroom, using lovers as need be while being emotionally committed to few.
Behn was unique and independent at a time when women could be shunned for the first and thought vile for the second. A talented writer of plays, she is also a fitting subject for them, and Liz Duffy Adams has cast her as the heroine in her play, “Or,,” at Media’s Hedgerow Theatre through February 28.
From the title, which includes a comma after Or” for the series to continue, you can tell Adams wants to show you all that Behn was. She chooses two settings to do it, a cell, although a private one Behn occupied at a debtors’ prison before a benefactor redeemed her, and in the sitting room of her better appointed, more salubrious London flat where visitors of past and present vintage pay calls and emphasize the scope of her acquaintance, talents, and pursuits.
Just as her lodging is becoming as crowded with callers as the Marx Brothers’ stateroom in “Room Service,”Behn is under the gun to produce the manuscript for the first important professional production of one of her plays, “The Rover,” at a theater other than the one King Charles supports and that has an august patron, a veritable windstorm in speech and movement as played by Allison Bloechl, that admires her. Clever and versatile as Behn is, she cannot help having some representative from every aspect of her life intrude on the concentration she requires to complete her play by the next day’s dawn, when it is due to begin rehearsal. Perhaps Adams should have considered calling her piece “And” because it involves Behn is bombarded by so many disparate activities in one afternoon.
“Or,,” which takes some of its structure and many of its plot twists, such as hiding succeeding visitors so their association with Behn will not be known, and embellishments, such as masks, false names, and disguises, from Restoration comedy, has many virtues. It approaches its fascinating subject with a twinkle in its eye. Adams obviously saw the liveliness in Behn’s spirit and became determined to bring it out above all else. Her play shows the ingenuity of the lead character and the handy way she uses her savvy to keep the people from various walks of her life from intersecting and clashing, perhaps violently.
Aaron Cromie’s production of “Or,” for Hedgerow is blithe and almost farcical in its approach as doors slam and one visitor inhabits a wardrobe while another is stashed in Behn’s boudoir as Behn entertains a third person in her parlor.. The fast, comic pace of Cromie’s staging, and the agile performances of Kittson O’Neill as Aphra Behn and Brock D. Vickers and Allison Bloechl in an array of parts, provide a good enough time, but “Or,” would benefit from both more air and more careful definition than Cromie and company are providing. Subtleties, both of language and of plot, are lost in physicality or sheer speed. O’Neill, Vickers, and Bloechl are playing remarkable people, with witty lines, at their disposal, but too often, those lines are delivered as if characters are intentionally showing off their talents at verbal parrying rather than being naturally offhand and adept at saying witty, provocative things. The entertainment value of “Or,” isn’t harmed by this stylization, but neither Behn nor Adams’s play seem to be getting their fair due. Some scenes need more time to unfold and gel. Dialogue sometimes needs to be more conversational and less a contest of cleverness. O’Neill, Vickers, and Bloechl bring their scenes home. Vickers, in particular, has fine moments as both King Charles and his possible assassin, Behn’s erstwhile lover, William Scot, whose father was among those who demanded the death of Charles I and was subsequently executed himself when Charles II took power. Yet, “Or,” seems to be a tumble of lines that may delight on their own but seem more like an exhibition than a fully realized play. Its quality comes through, and its ample comedy, but its soul doesn’t.
A lot is at stake for all of the characters in “Or,” but you never feels the tension or take any great interest in whether all works out. You watch the proceedings in a relaxed, amused state. You never care whether Behn finishes the play that has the potential to make her reputation. You never fear for Charles’s life even after you know Scot is aware the king is in Behn’s chambers. Everything is clear and neat, and nothing is dramatic. There’s wit but no bite, even though you can hear how much more potently “Or,” can register as you watch it and take objective stock of Adams’s dialogue.
Cromie’s staging is likeable and amusing. It satisfies as entertainment, but it misses a reachable mark in terms of engaging you in the various intrigues afoot just in Aphra Behn’s apartment or stimulating your interest in Behn and her times. Froth and style take the place of substance, and you feel the loss. Every scene plays well and serves its purpose. Every scene has some enjoyment to offer. But Cromie’s production is more droll than targeted. It wants to be, and often is, sexy and sassy when at times it needs to be serious and involving. A tad more realism and a palpable sense that careers and lives may on the line needs to be better established. So does Behn’s standing in the overall Restoration world. You see what a pivotal, resourceful creature she is, and her poise in precarious turns of fate, but you don’t see her depth or the intellectual spark that makes her as alluring as her unconventional daring does. This is a woman who attracts kings and men as multi-faceted as she is. This is a woman her countrymen trust to perform important espionage. This is a woman a theater company is willing to flout tradition to introduce as a playwright. That range has to come through more in O’Neill’s portrayal, which is admirable to the self-possessed extent it’s played but doesn’t go far enough in establishing Aphra Behn as exceptional. O’Neill handles Adams’s language well, bur rhyming couplets in an opening monologue seems to be more recited and pitched to show their lyricism rather than to introduce Adams’s play and its heroine. There is a tendency to deliver the language instead of maximizing the line. You understand all O’Neill is imparting as Behn, but it comes off as exposition rather than as a character confiding in the audience or mourning her plight as a prisoner who deserves better at the hands of her king and country. Especially since it is agreed upon remuneration from Charles that can free Behn from the debts and confinement.
Much is played at its surface level or teased in a way that makes the audience complicit in some naughty act or intrigue. More attention needs to go into revealing the texture in Adams’s script and the anxiety and strain inherent in Aphra’s life as she copes with the king, Scot, her literary patron, her deadline, and Nell Gwynne who pays a surprise call that affects several characters’ lives.
Adams certainly teaches you a lot about Aphra Behn, her life, and her world. Information is shrewdly woven into “Or,’s” lines, and the quandaries Aphra faces in her romantic, political, and literary lives certainly speak to all she has done and intends to do. Adams also paints a pleasing picture of Charles II, who Vickers assays quite playfully while displaying the king’s ardor for Aphra and mature attraction for Nell.
Please do not mistake cavils about aspects of Kittson O’Neill’s performance for thinking it’s damagingly deficient or misguided in any way. O’Neill’s Behn is a charmer. She knows exactly what to say and what to do to appease all you come to her, whether their purpose is to rely on her for company that hints at romance or to reveal a conspiracy concerning regicide. O’Neill’s Behn is competent, a quick thinker who wishes to advance what pleases her and stop what appalls her. You see her deftly juggling the various dilemmas which her activity in so many parallel worlds has wrought. Like many a comic Restoration heroine, she has to direct traffic so that none of her guests see another and then tend to the business of each caller at hand. She must parry with Charles, plead with Scot, condescend to her skittering, chattering patron, coddle her servant, bond with Nell, and finish her play while being a prima participant in a quick and overlapping series of events. It is this dynamic, adroit Behn that O’Neill shows us, a woman who keeps her calm when all is imploding around her. My cavil is we see the result of her resourcefulness but not the well or depth from which it springs. O’Neill is energetic and can turn Behn’s character to the most appropriate mode for a specific circumstance on a dime. She keeps Cromie’s production moving at a brisk, efficient pace.
Brock D. Vickers is quickly earning the prize as the region’s master in multiple characterizations per play. In Hedgerow’s “On the Verge” and “Don Quixote,” he played a remarkable panoply of roles, giving each distinct personality and dash that demonstrate Vickers has versatility and physical dexterity as well as handsomeness going for him as an actor. His years at Hedgerow have been as productive and impressive as anyone’s, and Vickers has proven, time and again, he can play any kind of role and do so with style and well-judged individuality. He, if anyone, is the linchpin that gives Cromie’s “Or,” the cohesive it has. It is his Charles, and his Scot, acting as goads and foils to Behn, that gives “Or,” a chance to slow down a notch and let a story, rather an overview of a woman’s hectic day, emerge. His Charles is sweetly boyish and needy as he comes to Aphra, not for coitus, which she denies him, but for affectionate company and sparring, but intimate, conversation that relaxes him and takes some pressure from his having to prove England made the right choice in banishing the vindictive heirs of the late Cromwell and returning government to him. Aphra is a confidante who can be kissed and cuddled while Charles is venting to her, and Vickers conveys the relationship well, betraying disappointment and even jealousy while showing how content and grateful he is to have Aphra in the role she has designed to define their relationship.
While ironic, familiar, and flirtatiously romantic as Charles, Vickers shows the desperation of Scot, a man who has had Aphra as a lover, but more, knows of her exploits as a spy and, though comic at times, has no compunction about using Aphra’ s secret live as both a way to elicit information and as a weapon. Scot has to appeal to Aphra as a friend and past paramour while enlisting her trust in a plot involving the king’s life. Vickers not only differentiates his characters well, going way beyond what a change of wig and jacket will do (especially considering the wig for Scot), he finds the various shades in Scot that make that character somewhat threatening and give Cromie’s production its one frisson of suspense and worry.
Allison Bloechl is bright fun as Eleanor Gwynne, the orange seller who became the principal, or at least the best remembered actress of her time and who catches the eye of Charles II, according to Adams, in Aphra Behn’s lodgings. Bloechl, although she arrives in costume, as everyone visiting Behn seems to do, establishes an immediate feminine camaraderie with O’Neill’s Aphra even though the costume she chooses is men’s clothing. They have a good time talking about men and what kind of lover would suit them. Bloechl is also entertaining when Nell is trying to figure out the identity of the gentleman who allows Aphra to live so comfortably and as the dervish of a patron who wishes to stage Behn’s play. Zoran Kovcic’s set is made for farce, with three doors and a wardrobe, all amply used, at Cromie’s disposal. It also has the right look of a 17th century lady’s parlor. Jared Reed’s lighting adds to the moods and attitudes in Adams’s script.
Virginia Woolf pays great homage to Aphra Behn in her marvelous essay, “A Room of One’s Own.” Liz Duffy Adams returns the compliment by having Aphra refer to a room of one’s own in “Or,.” I found that particularly felicitous.
“Or,” runs through Sunday, February 28, at the Hedgerow Theatre, 64 Rose Valley Road, in Rose Valley, Pa. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Friday, 4 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $34 and can be ordered by calling 610-565-4211 or by visiting http://www.hedgerowtheatre.org.