Or, by Liz Duffy Adams, directed by Allison Narver, Seattle Repertory through April 22
[Yes, I will return to relentlessly promoting Scourge: Star Wars, but let us take a break here for a little Restoration Comedy.]
I almost feel the need to recuse myself, since I know the lead. Well, I don't KNOW her, but I know her voice, since she's recorded voices for the upcoming Guild Wars 2 game (and I may have been in the booth recording her on a couple sessions, but honestly when we're in recording mode everything becomes a bit of a blur and it is only the professionalism of the actors and the booth crew that keeps us sane). So even with her Brit on, I hear familiar lines and cadences. From the opening declamation (given from the left-hand balcony box), it took me a moment for my brain to readjust. It knocked me a bit off my pins.
And I suppose that readjustment is all well and good, in that the play is all about dualisms. Dualisms in gender. In identity. In life choices. This, or that, and the search for both. All wrapped up in a Restoration farce strained through a fine mesh of Stones-era Mod London.
The Restoration, for those who have a hard time with American history, is the period of the 1660's, when the British Crown was restored. Charles I had been offed by Cromwell's mob, and the roundheads in turn were beaten by the royalists and Charles II was lofted onto the throne. The Commonwealth forces had closed the theaters, and Charles reopened them. And while I tend to democracy, I favor the side that rewards the artists (and the writers). This new theater is not Shakespeare's - women are allowed on the stage now, and in an interesting turn are now cross-dressing themselves, playing male roles, or "breaches parts".
So Or, (yes, the comma is part of the title) centers around Aphra Behn, who was a remarkable woman of her age. Credited as the first female writer that actually made money at it, she was a former spy (like Defoe was later), who turned to writing, making a mark for herself both as poet and as playwright. Her works went into hiding with later eras seeking to cover them up, and she has had a resurgence in recent year. In short, the play is about her making the transition between spy (imprisoned for debt because the Crown doesn't have the money to pay) and celebrated playwright. It is also about her and her current cerebral lover (Charles himself), her and her former lover (another spy who wants to come in from the cold named William Scott), and her new potential lover (Nell Gwyn, who will become Charles II's eventual paramour).
So yes, this has all the making of a farce, complete with multiple door slams and people hiding in the armoire. Cranking up the frantic activity is that there are but three actors on boards. Kirsten Potter (who's voice belongs to an eight-foot tall shape-shifting barbarian in our game) commands the stage as Aphra. Montana von Fliss (Previously in The Three Musketeers a few years back) is primarily Nell with sidetrips into jailers and large-bottomed maidservants. Basil Harris is both Charles and William Scott, as well as Monty-Pythonesque turn in drag as the theater owner who is going to give Aleph her big break, provided she delivers her play by the morning, all while William Scott is in the armoire and Nell and Charles are canoodling in the bedroom.
Wackiness ensues, made all the moreso by a swinging sixties London gloss. Von Fliss as Nell has a predatory sexuality and a Mick Jagger-swagger. Rock chords accompany the changes of action. There is a paen to Arcadia, the idealized pastoral utopia of the age, in which the music sweeps up and you expect the cast to break into Donovan's "Atlantis". And for the King and the actress frolicking offstage, you get a few bars of Bowie's "All the Young Dudes", The spirit of Mick and Keith hang like beneficent gods, even if the good weed they speak of is tobacco from the Colonies.
Similarly, the language is rough and bawdy as well, with bombs of the F variety lobbed with the casual care of Guy Fawkes on his day off. The costuming by Catherine Hunt is opulent and sexy, in particular with the gender-casual styles of both Aphra and Nell. Indeed, with the clothes, doors slamming, gender-swapping, and casual relationships, this is closer to the Ed Greenwood's Forgotten Realms than the true Britain of the age.
But it is Kirsten Potter as Aphra that holds the entire proceedings together, as the increasingly frustrated writer with a deadline and all manner of distractions. As the central constant in the piece, she is the touchstone for the rest of her, and her challenges outweigh the concerns of the others. The choices faced, chosen, and merged is the center of the play, expertly and amusingly dispatched, and well worth checking out.
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