Spy games: Live Arts’ Or, explores the life and loves of Aphra Behn

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Jenn Downey, Chris Patrick, and Claire Chandler star in a farce-fueled spin on 1660s counter-culture in Liz Duffy Adams’ comedy of manners, Or,. Photo courtesy Live Arts. Jenn Downey, Chris Patrick, and Claire Chandler star in a farce-fueled spin on 1660s counter-culture in Liz Duffy Adams’ comedy of manners, Or,. Photo courtesy Live Arts.

Liz Duffy Adams’ Or, is Live Arts’ latest offering, a deftly minced hodge-podge of a play, primarily consisting of what may be incompletely described as a retroactively considered Restoration comedy. Now, when was the last time you had a serious hankering for a Restoration comedy? Some ambivalent theater-goers find Shakespeare intimidating and obscure (they shouldn’t, by the way), but seriously, a Restoration comedy? Here’s the thing, though: Most of them are brilliant, full of wit, humor, and humanity, if you can follow them, and some of the best contributions to the genre came from a woman in 17th century England named Aphra Behn. And it just so happens that she’s the protagonist of the aforementioned play.

Aphra Behn was a woman of her time, one of those poorly behaved women who tend to make history; she was England’s first professional female playwright, a spy in the service of King Charles II, and an accomplished poet and novelist, among other things. Much of her history is guesswork, but it is rumored (though not confirmed) that she was openly bisexual. But the veracity of her biographical information isn’t important. She was a lady shrouded in myth, and that’s where Or, comes from.

Adams’ script is a strange cocktail. Premiered in 2009, its structure is clearly influenced by Restoration comedy, though it wantonly snubs some of its most hallowed conventions, namely that it employs only three actors, two of whom play multiple parts. Many of the themes and plot devices are taken directly from the Restoration style in which Behn carved out her spot in history, and yet the whole thing is rife with Molière-style French farce. It’s built on the shoulders of Tom Stoppard and his quasi-historical treatments, and therefore houses intentional anachronisms in speech and convention, but goes just that little bit further by capturing a semblance of the original presentation style instead of re-contextualizing. All in all, it’s a good script worth its level of acclaim, though it does cultivate one of my theatrical pet peeves: It plays somewhat to the exclusionary, in-joke nature of theater communities, and some of the most incisive and humorous moments would be lost on someone who didn’t have an extensive theatrical background.

The play is directed by Christina Courtenay and I applaud her on handling as much as this production required. It’s a boisterous script played out in a black box theater, so the inherent energies are immediately at odds. I’m a stickler for motivated blocking and, truth be told, there were times where I felt almost none of the movement on stage was warranted by the script, yet I do understand the need to keep this play moving and share the genuine fun of watching lustful characters throw each other about onto settees and the like while spouting brilliant witticisms. The production also benefited from the broken fourth wall humor necessary in a space too intimate to completely mask the stagecraft. Characters make breathless entrances after quick changes behind curtains that we can see fluttering from backstage activity, but the entrance is all the more enjoyable for being tongue-in-cheek.

As for the actors, I’m becoming more and more a fan of Chris Patrick every time I see him. He plays his characters not only with intelligence and sincerity, but with careful sensitivity to the overall aesthetic of the play, mindful of his place in the production, and that’s something only instinct carries. Also, his Lady Davenant was so hilarious that it made my face hurt from laughter. Claire McGurk Chandler was fun to watch, and not that overbearing, forced kind of fun either. She was sweet, sexy, and likeable. My primary note, though, is that I never saw any real vulnerability from her. She had it right under what she was doing the entire time, but either her choices or the nature of the production prevented it from coming through.

The play revolves around Aphra, though. Jen Downey’s performance was insightful and precise, all the more admirable considering she never actually leaves the stage during the show. Anyone who’s ever played a part like that knows how surprisingly exhausting it is and with good reason: Actors often cite the sustained development of character throughout a show as one of the primary advantages of stage performance. In film, you’re only a character between takes, but with a part like Aphra Behn, you essentially follow about two hours of the most important moments in your character’s life, and you do it every night. I also give her a huge commendation for embracing the somewhat foreign meter/cadence and vocabulary of the time and script, delivering it with casual ease. My only complaint is similar to that about Ms. Chandler: I didn’t see enough vulnerability, though I did see some. Much of her performance was so precise that it came off excessively practiced and lost the verisimilitude that grounds a seemingly silly, yet thoughtful play like this. That being said, I watched her onstage for the entire show and never tired of her, and that’s really what it boils down to.

Overall, Live Arts’ production of Or, is good. Not the best it’s ever done but worth the time to see it, worth the effort to produce and perform it, worthy of the obvious labor of love it required of its all-volunteer cast and crew. It’s this kind of show that theater people will continue to stubbornly mount because it’s good and it says something worthwhile. It’s theater for people who love theater.

 

Or, Live Arts, Through May 4.

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