Brought to us by Echo Theatre and director Terri Ferguson, Or, by Liz Duffy Adams, explores the life of female Restoration-era playwright Aphra Behn (1640-1689). Working as both the first female English playwright as well as a spy for King Charles II, Behn’s life was complicated and groundbreaking. Or is inspired by that spirit. Rather than claiming strict historical accuracy, Adams focuses on “playful language, cross-dressing dalliance, and the new birth of feminism wrought by the Restoration.”
Settled into the cozy Bath House Cultural Center at White Rock Lake, Or, immediately establishes itself as an intimate experience. As the show opens, Jessica Cavanagh (Aphra Behn) addresses the audience directly, inviting each person to follow her into this reinterpretation of Restoration Comedy. Stylistic language allows Cavanagh to briefly embody the traditional role of the chorus, which is both refreshing and frustrating as it is never repeated. However, the show moves smoothly into its first scene, which is perhaps the point at which the play is most historically accurate.
Drawing from Behn’s own words, we see her struggle to write a letter to Charles II pleading for him to pay her for services rendered as a crown spy so that she can escape her small cell in debtor’s prison. Here, we get the first glimpse of the benefit of an intimate environment and the cleverness of Clare Floyd DeVries’ set design. Despite the open design, only a fraction of the stage is used during the prison scene, allowing the audience to focus on getting to know Aphra before the show moves on. This also gave Cavanagh a chance to dig in to Adams’ and Behn’s poetry, setting the tone for the rest of her performance.
Much like comedies of the era, the plays two other cast members – John Venable and Morgan Lauré – take on the challenge of each playing three characters throughout the show. Their quick costume and accent changes (supported again by the multiple-entrance set) bring a whimsy to the play and move the plot forward at a neck-breaking pace. Unlike the original production, Venable did not spend any time in drag – something that had been criticized by the New York Times as out-of-place in an otherwise stylistically accurate show.
Likewise, all of the performers adopted stylized dialects to accompany the language, and only slipped up a few times over the non-stop hour and a half. Though the side characters could at times seem a bit stock, their over-the-top humor grounded the play, making it accessible to everyone in the audience even when the language might be tough to follow. This accessibility is essential to the play’s core – the remarkable impact of Aphra Behn’s life on early feminism. Aphra’s fierce determination to live the life a famous playwright despite her gender and her open ideals of love hold a mirror up to the struggles of women over the last century.
And this is why the work that Echo Theatre does is so important. It is rare enough to see the work of a woman playwright on stage, let alone to have a theater dedicated to it. Everyone leaves “Or,” with a smile on their face, having been introduced to the remarkable Aphra Behn. The show was a great choice to open Echo’s season which is dedicated to Behn’s work. Head on over to the Bath House before September 22 to see Or and keep your eyes peeled for more Aphra Behn from Echo this season!