“Whore is scarce a more reproachful name than Poetess.” - John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester
Poet and playwright, government spy and lover of many, Aphra Behn was a phenom on the 17th-century English arts scene.
Moxie Theatre brings us “Or,” Liz Duffy Adams’ fanciful, delightful, word-drunk romp about Behn and a few of her contemporaries, through April 23. Shana Wride directs.
Aphra Behn was smart, gutsy and supremely confident in her abilities as playwright (she was the first female professional writer and one of the most prolific writers of the Restoration era), lover (she had a succession of both genders) and spy in the service of England’s Charles II.
It’s that last that got her into trouble. When we first see her, she is languishing in debtors’ prison. Why? Ol’ Charley hasn’t ponied up, and she’s broke.
Jo Anne Glover shines as Behn, never at a loss for words – even in this situation, she’s begging more ink from the jailer (David McBean, in one of multiple roles) and working on a play.
It’s the late 1660s and Cromwell’s regressive military rule has ended. Charles II has returned from exile in France to assume the throne, and those in the arts are breathing easier. The king will reopen theaters and even decree that women be allowed to play women’s parts for the first time.
Behn is in the right place at the right time, and so is well known actress Nell Gwynne (Jacque Wilke), a lusty and buxom young thing whose specialty is “breeches parts” ... and having affairs with many of both sexes, including Behn and the king. (When surrounded by an angry mob who thought her the king’s Catholic mistress, Nell reportedly replied with a smile, “You are mistaken, good people, I am the king’s Protestant whore.”)
Though illiterate, Nell had both vivacity and an earthy and profane wit that served her well, and Moxie’s trouser-clad Gwynne both looks good and keeps up in tit-for-tat verbal jousts with Behn.
The randy king finally springs Behn, and also offers to move her into the castle, but she reaffirms her determination to be a playwright and offers him Gwynne instead (questionable history, but it works well in context).
There isn’t much of a theme here, other than the relationship between art and government which changed dramatically with the king’s return from exile.
“It’s a new golden age, babe,” Gwynne says. “The Puritans had their day, now it’s our turn. Peace, love and happiness.”
Does that ring a bell? It should, because Adams wants to draw a parallel between the newfound freedoms of the 1660s and the “free love” 1960s. She even has Gwynne recommending “tune in and turn on,” though she doesn’t seem to tout dropping out. The parallel gets a bit strained, but that’s hardly a major complaint.
This is a splendid cast. The always-reliable Glover is excellent as Behn, as sure-tongued in contemporary speech as in the many rhymed couplets in her text.
Wilke is a hoot as Gwynne, even funnier as theater producer Lady Davenant, who delivers a long, speedy and amusing monologue, and fine as Behn’s clever maid Maria.
McBean is a stitch as Behn’s jailer, suitably regal and randy as the “Merrie Monarch” and convincing as William Scot, Aphra’s former colleague (and lover) in the spy game.
Wride keeps the action buzzing along (occasionally to the point of rushing lines), Valerie Henderson’s lovely costumes are terrific and the technical elements are fine as well.
Oh, the title? Behn wants to avoid writing one of those “or” plays so popular during the Restoration (and of which Behn wrote her share).
Adams (author of “Dog Act,” “WET” and “The Listener,” all previously produced in town) knows how to write engaging theater pieces. “Or,” is no exception.
“Or,” plays through April 23 at Moxie Theatre, 6663 El Cajon Blvd., Suite N.
Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m.; Sunday at 2 p.m.
For tickets call (858) 598-7620 or visit HERE.
To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.