Aphra Behn is a thoroughly modern woman. She’s a mouthy, independent, bisexual playwright, equally adept at sexual politics and gay repartee. But Behn was not born of our time but rather in 1640, and over the next 49 years she packed in several lifetimes of adventure, intrigue, and professional success.
In Or, Liz Duffy Adams’ classy send up of English Restoration Comedy, Behn takes center stage as a matchmaking heroine, deeply committed to personal freedom and the literary life. In her imaginings of what Behn was really like, Adams has created a delightful mashup of Restoration theater conventions — sexual explicitness, topical writing, bustling plots, dizzying costume changes, and the first female actors, usually in so-called “breeches roles” — spiced up with 21st century slang. Behn complains that she’s got “a deadline” for a play, compliments an actress for being “the next big thing” and refers to a party as a “happening.” But rather than detracting from the general merriment, these verbal lapses add an additional comic element to Adams’ sparkling script.
Adams has done yeoman’s work in creating such an engaging depiction of a life that needs little embellishment. The real Behn was born into a family
of modest means near Canterbury but thanks to her mother’s role as wet nurse to an aristocratic family she had access to that family’s library. She may also have had a Catholic upbringing, although little is known of her early years. At some point she married a Dutch merchant but he died shortly after, and she became a spy for King Charles II, who had recently been restored on the throne. The King was slow in paying her fees (if he paid at all) and Behn wound up in debtors’ prison. An undisclosed source paid her debts and from that point on, she devoted her life to writing. Over the course of her remaining years, she became known as the “George Sand of the Restoration,” living the bohemian life in London and publishing plays, novels, poems, and pamphlets.
Or, whose title is drawn from the English style of double-naming plays, starts sluggishly with Kirsten Potter (Aphra) introducing the play as she hangs from the balcony of the Leo K. theatre. She jumps to the stage and the real show begins. Although the first scene of Aphra in prison is also a little slow, the action picks up speed when the King (Basil Harris in one of his quick-change roles) releases her, clearly expecting certain favors in return. Aphra outwits him, however, and convinces him to bankroll her plays for his King’s Theatre.
From this point on Or, is a nonstop onslaught of badinage, sight gags and some of the best acting currently appearing on Seattle stages. Potter is
inspired as Aphra, on stage for virtually the entire play. Her energy is endless and she makes even the most ridiculous scenes believable. Thanks to Allison Narver’s clever directing, Potter keeps the farce going at lightning speed, orchestrating the frantic comings and goings of the King, Aphra’s former lover William, her female lover Nell, and one of Aphra’s patronesses. At the same time, her Aphra is completely convincing as the serious-minded writer determined to make her own way in the male-dominated literary world.
The two other cast members, Basil Harris and Montana von Fliss, are not just Potter’s equal at physical comedy but exceptional quick-change artists. Von Fliss is so convincing as both Nell Gwyyn (the Restoration-era actress and Charles II’s mistress) and Aphra’s maid Mariah that it wasn’t until curtain calls when I realized she had played both roles. Harris’ task is just as challenging, requiring him to jump in and out of a closet as he assumes in the roles of William, the King, and the theater patroness Lady Davenant. All three actors do an exceptional job with the English accents.
Matthew Smucker’s clever set provides a wonderful off-kilter background to the high jinks. Although L.B. Morse’s lighting effects are gorgeous, especially in the final morning scene, it’s hard to know why the backdrop lighting keeps changing from red to purple to green to golden.
More than anything, though, it’s Adam’s adept blending of Restoration verbal flourishes and madcap comedy that makes Or such a winning theatrical experience and a fitting tribute to the woman about whom Virginia Woolf wrote, "All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the grave of Aphra Behn... for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds."
If you go: "Or," Seattle Repertory Theatre, 155 Mercer St., Seattle, through April 22. Tickets starting at $30 are available at the box office, by phone 206-443-2222 or toll-free at 877-900-9285, or online.