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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review

Let us speak only of what really matters poetry, theatre and love.
— King Charles II
todd randolph
Tod Randolph (Photo by Ava G. Lindenmaier).
A seventeenth century female spy, poet and playwright, Aphra Behn, is the subject of Liz Duffy Adams' delightful Restoration-like comedy Or, at Shakespeare and Company's Tina Packer Playhouse. It originally opened off-Broadway in 2009 and Adams has drawn many parallels between our own and Behn's time periods.

Though her writing was reviled as indecent and inappropriate during Victorian times, Behn's reputation was revitalized during the 20th century. Of Behn, Virginia Woolf said: "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."

Liz Duffy Adams has given us a dynamic speculation as to the nature of Aphra Behn AKA Ann Behn, Mrs. Bean, Agent 160 and Astrea. This unusual and forceful woman, not only of her own but any time, lived through turbulent civil strife, foreign warfare, waves of plague and fire. Yet only a few facts of her story have survived along with about nineteen plays, poetry and a novel. Behn is considered the earliest professional (paid) English female playwright.

Though the play opens in a debtor's prison cell and the feisty Tod Randolph's Behn introduces and closes the narrative in rhyming couplets and blank verse, this Restoration romp soon switches to modern language and hilarious interplay. Adams envisions an evening in Behn's rooms as she attempts to meet a writing deadline. Seven characters utilizing three actors provide a fast-paced, witty telling of Behn's history. Anecdotal facts are interlaced with snappy repartee. Director Alice Reagan and a terrific cast weave the relationships and information in a manner that captures the audience's imagination.

Randolph is a convincing Aphra. Her self-containment and determination act as a powerful anchor to the chaos of the evening's comings and goings. Randolph's dryly humorous observations and manner amidst constant interruptions by needier visitors indicates the sense of purpose that this remarkable woman must have possessed.

Allyn Burrows, in a welcome return to S&Co, plays multiple roles. He's unrecognizable as the resentful yet obedient jailer. He then assumes the guises of Charles II, newly restored King of England, and William Scot, Aphra's fellow spy and former lover. Burrows alternates these roles in a clearly delineated manner. His Charles is an egalitarian pleasure-seeker while Scot is a street fighting alcoholic avenger. Burrows mines the humor in each character's persona and with the aid of quick costume changes seamlessly moves between the two roles.

Nehassaiu deGannes as actress Nell Gwynne, producer Lady Davenant and Behn's snarky maid Maria is magical in her distinct characterizations. As the protective, lower class Maria, her lip curls. She also appears as a decrepit, wise old bird who has seen it all so that nothing seems to faze her about Aphra's life. As the eccentric Lady Davenant, deGannes sweeps in and commands the stage; she lampoons the producer with broad gestures and an assured upper class voice and mien. As Nell Gwynne she frolics across the stage exuding a charming sexuality that has both Aphra and Charles in thrall to her spritely allure. This cross-dressing gamine has some of the funniest lines in the show and she speaks her heart with a shrewd wit.

The three actors swirl through dialogue filled with double entendres, witticisms, frank sexual expressions and four letter words amidst fast scene and character changes, Ninety minutes fly as director Reagan moves the players around in a vivid retelling of Aphra's life and cultural milieu.

Sandra Goldmark's set is simple and effectively serves the thematic and farcical elements of the play. Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew's lighting, the detailed and sumptuous costumes by Govane Lohbauer and Amy Altadonna's sound design enhance the plays scenic elements and emotions.

A 21st century audience can relate to Aphra's fear of Puritan repression, terrorism and mob rule. There are lots of big ideas in OR, and you'll hear them if you pay attention while laughing.

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OR by Liz Duffy Adams
Directed by Alice Reagan
Cast: Tod Randolph (Aphra Behn) Allyn Burrows (Jailer, King Charles II, William Scot) Nehassaiu deGannes (Nell Gwynne, Maria, Lady Davenant)
Scene Design: Sandra Goldmark
Lighting Design: Jennifer Oi-Suk Yew
Costume Design: Govane Lohbauer
Sound Design: Amy Altadonna Bloom
Stage Manager: Hope Rose Kelly
Voice and Dialect Coach: Gwendolyn Schwinke
Running Time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Shakespeare & Company, The Tina Packer Playhouse, Lenox, MA
From 7/23/16; opening 7/29/16; closing 9/4/16. 
Reviewed by Gloria Miller at July 29 performance

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