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A CurtainUp Review
A sex farce is not exactly where I expected to find Aphra Behn, at least not the Aphra Behn I met in a stuffy Ivy League English seminar. Behn (1640-1689) a Restoration playwright, is best known as a pioneer for female writers, not only for her status as such in a male dominated literary community, but for addressing in her work issues of gender and sexuality. She was also a political spy for the Court of Charles II.
Less about the writing than the lifestyle, Liz Duffy Adams’ play Or, (the comma is, cleverly, part of the title) opens with Aphra in debtors’ prison because the king (her historically undisclosed benefactor exchanges with whom were not limited to monetary settlements) didn't pay her for her time as a spy. Upon release, she gets to work on a new play, that will hopefully launch her into the London theater’s spotlight.
Maggie Siff (AMC’s Mad Men) is a spirited, lively, and seductive Aphra , in a highly sexualized world that is a welcome departure from the way many of us are probably predisposed to look at the Restoration era. The play makes very clear where it stands on the theories regarding Aphra’s sexuality (and her alleged fake marriage in order to avoid the stigmas of remaining single).
Kelly Hutchinson and Andy Paris play the various friends, companions and lovers (of both sexes), and do most of the farcical legwork. The humor comes not only from the writing — often carefully, whimsically anachronistic — but also from the audience’s knowledge tjat there are only three actors. Awareness of the quick changes often required by the plot’s hijinks creates an added layer of laughter. The actors execute the follies swiftly, as the completion of Aphra’s play is sidelined in their favor.
The laughs come, too, from Adams’ loving mockery of the idiosyncratic writer type, and the knowing irony of modern references. She sprinkles the scenes following Aphra’s liberation from prison with pillars of the 1960’s – weed, free love, liberation. They are jarring in their modernity, and yet, perhaps with the exception of the weed, unobtrusively relevant. There are also digs at an ongoing war and a failing economy of the time, an achingly relevant parallel to the seemingly disparate era.
Siff’s Aphra thrives on the tantalizing thrill of ambiguity. She often teases her lovers, leaving them to assess what they see in front of them. Her life, her profession, and her proclivities, it would seem, were each a series of ors. That little word "or"affords us a choice — or, in the event of no choosing, merges together two opposing options. But by standing between the two sides, either bridging them or separating them, it is itself in merely two letters the whole of ambiguity.
The play’s title, complete with its grammatically clever comma, would lead you to believe it to be more of a rumination on language than it really is. It is quite linguistically rich, and boasts rhyming verbal acrobatics, but the fascinating ruminations on the titular word come only in momentary explorations. Instead, the unexpected is a pleasure —- a sexy, witty and irreverent comedy, and a playful take on history. Those stuffy seminars where I first heard about Aphra Behn should have been so much fun.