There’s a mistaken belief out in the artistic ether that in order for a show to be good, you must have only the best. (Best actors, best set, best director, best script, etc.). While having any one of those things can help (certainly they can’t hurt), in my experience quality shows come about when all of the various elements exist in a kind of symbiotic support system (i.e. the lighting supports the set supports the acting supports the script). For an example of such a production that manages to hang together as a cohesive whole, look to Simple Machine/Maiden Phoenix’s co-production of Or, by Liz Duffy Adams, now playing at Chelsea Theatre Works. It’s a production that as far as I can tell, doesn’t put a single foot wrong through its ninety minute run time.
Adams’ script takes inspiration from the real life of Restoration-era English writer, Aphra Behn, who may or may not have also worked as a spy for King Charles II. Although her plays may not be commonly staged in present day (and perhaps Adams’ play can help fix that), she became a popular and prolific playwright working just as women were (finally) being allowed to act on the English stage. But while the roots of the play are in real life, Adams’ isn’t interested in serving up a history lesson. Rather, she uses Behn’s life as a jumping off point for an inspired bit of comic fun.
The bulk of the play’s plot takes place on a single night following Aphra being released from debtor’s prison by the newly crowned King Charles II, (for whom, you’ll remember, she has previously acted as a spy). Turning down the chance to be his mistress, she sets her sights on a career in the theater, securing Charles as her secret patron. She begins work on a new play that she hopes will star stage actress, Nell Dwynne (another character plucked from history), with whom she shares a budding attraction. Then Aphra’s co-spy ex-husband shows up warning of an assassination plot against King Charles. Then King Charles shows up and warns Aphra that her husband has double crossed her. Then theater owner Lady Davenant arrives, telling Aphra that her company will produce Aphra’s new play but only if she finishes by nine the following morning. On and on Adams’ script tosses in new developments that I won’t spoil here (the joy is in watching them all play out), letting the action build as we watch Aphra try to start her career, get rid of her ex-husband and save the English monarchy (all in a day’s work, of course).
There’s a lot to admire in this production, not least of all fantastic performances from the show’s three actors (who in total, portray 7 characters). Michael Poignand is clearly having a ball bouncing between the decadent King Charles and Aphra’s wily ex, William. Mid-show Kaylyn Bancroft gets a gem of a comic monologue as Lady Davenant that she throws herself into for all it’s worth, in addition to the wonderful layers she brings to the soulful Nell Gwynne and the brusquer housemaid, Maira. And as the lynch pin around which all of these characters fly, Anna Waldron never loses a beat as Aphra Behn. Waldron brings a necessary sense of intelligence to a performance that is also (and perhaps most importantly) very funny.
Kudos, as well, should be paid to director Adrienne Boris for pulling all of the various strings together without letting the various elements fly out of control. Despite the historical setting, Adams’ play is essentially a slamming doors farce (or, rather, a slamming curtain farce) a la Boeing Boeing and Boris’ clean and purposeful staging allows the actors to realize their full comic potential and the play to build on its gathering energy. There were several points in the show where Poignand and Bancroft switched between characters so quickly I was convinced the actors must have clones hiding backstage.
I must also draw attention to Liz Duffy Adams’ delightfully witty script. The plays begins in verse and when it gets going, Adams’ lines begin to hum as though electric. You can enjoy the play for the freewheeling farce that it is, but as the characters start to opine about how the present day (the 1600s) is wide open with new opportunities for women in society, you may realize that there is a method to this kind of madness. Part of Adams’ larger point (I suspect) has to do with how she surrounds her protagonist with characters that speak to different aspects of Aphra. Aphra could be a playwright, or she could be the King’s mistress, or she could be a spy. She could be double crossed. She could be a liar. She could be married. She could be a traitor. She could be single. She could be straight. She could be a lesbian. She could be in love. She could be in lust. Round and round the possible outcomes go. At one point Lady Davenant remarks how tired she is of these “Or” plays (trivia players will remember that Shakespeare’s full title for one of his plays was Twelfth Night or What you will). “Just pick one or the other” she says and Adams’ script makes the audience want to ask, “Why?” The truth is that all of these possible identities are not as mutually exclusive as they may seem. The only way to get a sense of the whole person is to give these characters (particularly the women) the freedom to let all of these identities and possibilities bounce and play off each other. Isn’t that the kind of freedom we should all be fighting for?
Or, is playing at Chelsea Theatre Works September 8-23, 2017.