by Mike Hoban
‘Or,’ Written by Liz Duffy Adams; Directed by Adrienne Boris; Scenic Design by Ryan Bates;Costume Design by Erin Eva Butcher; Lighting Design by Emily Bearce; Sound Design by Julianne Mason. Presented by Maiden Phoenix Theatre Company and Simple Machine at Chelsea Theatre Works at 189 Winnisimmet St, Chelsea through September 23.
Maiden Phoenix Theatre Company and Simple Machine have combined forces to deliver a terrific adaptation of Liz Duffy Adams Or, a 17th century backstage sex farce loosely based on what could have been a single night in the life of Aphra Behn, the English poet and playwright who was one of the first English women to earn a living as a writer. Fueled by solid performances from its three member cast (in multiple roles), Or, is not only wickedly funny, but shows women (and men) in an astonishingly different light than one would expect in Restoration-era England, while paying homage to the life of a literary pioneer.
Or, overcomes its somewhat slow start (writers writing in rhyming couplets, while clever, doesn’t usually set the tone for a rollicking comedy) when Behn (Anna Waldron) is visited by a foppish caricature in a masquerade mask in her debtors prison cell – and that’s when the sexual antics and comedy kick into gear. The fop turns out to be her employer, King Charles ll (Michael Poignand), who has come to pay off her debts to spring her from jail. As it turns out, Behn (or as she was also known – Agent 160) also had a day job, working for the king as a spy. Charles quickly becomes smitten with the lovely poet and hires her as a playwright, setting her up with a bohemian-style apartment above the theater, where she meets her newest lover, famed actress Nell Gwynn (Kaylyn Bancroft). As Behn juggles liaisons with her new friends, a former lover, William Scott (also played by Poignand) comes to warn her of a plot to kill the king. All this while she works feverishly to meet a deadline for a new play.
That sets the stage for this bawdy work, one that (thankfully) relies more on Adams’ rapier-like wit than the physical comedy of most farce. Having seen Theatre on Fire’s compelling production of Adam’s post-apocalyptic play Dog Act last year, I was well aware of her brilliance as a playwright, but her flair for comedy is on an even par with her “serious” writing. Adams seamlessly integrates current vernacular with Restoration period language into the dialogue, and the talented cast runs wild with the material in this fast-paced 90 minute romp.
The appealing Waldron essentially plays the straight role to Poignand and Bancroft, despite being the protagonist. Poignand is a scream as the dandified king and makes a smooth (as well as lightning) transition to the drunken spy and rogue William Scott. In addition to playing Nell Gwynn, Bancroft submits a wonderfully demented turn as the non-stop chatterer theater manager Lady Davenant (who will produce Behn’s half-finished play if it’s done by 9AM), as well as the cantankerous housekeeper Maria.
The play is being performed at the newly renovated (and cozy) Chelsea Theatre Works, which offers ample on street parking and a slew of good (and inexpensive) Spanish restaurants within a short walking distance of the theater. The show is in its final weekend, so just go. For more info, go to: http://www.ortheplay.com/