Or, the Liz Duffy Adams play that opens Third Rail Repertory’s season, makes good on a promise included in a prologue, delivered here by the ever-engaging Maureen Porter as she enters from the back of the house at Imago Theatre. The brief speech serves to acclimate us to the heightened yet playful language of the play, as well as to hint at the method to Adams’ stylistic madness. The idea, we’re told, is to “ricochet between a dense array of opposites.”
Or you might call it a mash-up. Take an intriguing historical figure — 17th-century poet, playwright and spy Aphra Behn, noted as Britain’s first female professional writer — whip up some suspenseful plot points suggested by a sketchy biography and a tumultuous era, fold in some door-slamming farce, and wrap it all in the frisky wit of Restoration comedy. The combination plays to several of the various strengths that Third Rail has demonstrated over the years, for the thoughtful and the madcap, the silly and sublime, the sociologically resonant and the fancifully theatrical…
Or, — the comma purposefully included — is a fitting title. On one level, it’s a pithy snippet from the windy, wishy-washy titles common to Restoration-era plays, their alternative interpretive options hinged by that conjunction. More meaningfully, it alludes to the plethora of possibilities opening up in Aphra’s world. Should she be spy or writer? Kept woman or commissioned artist? Will she love men or women? Will she be rebel or loyalist? And are those she meets what they seem to be, or do words, wardrobes and even histories deceive? Considering the subject, who biographer Janet Todd described as “not so much a woman to be unmasked as an unending combination of masks,” the abundance of questions seems appropriate.
“Ors divide less than they subtly link,” asserts that aforementioned prologue. “We all embody opposites within.” And so Adams doesn’t explore choices so much as she establishes the unity of opposites, as alternatives and deceptions and intentions all turn themselves inside out, to serendipitous effect.
Or she could just be trying to show audiences a good time. The majority of the narrative centers on a single night, in which Behn juggles a budding relationship with a young actress, the amorous interests of King Charles II, and the sudden reappearance of a former lover who may or may not be involved in a Catholic plot to kill Charles, all while trying to meet a dawn deadline to finish a play she fervently hopes will launch a path-breaking career. As directed by Philip Cuomo, the action is brisk without ever feeling unduly frantic, aided by the efficiency of Behn’s rustic plank-floor lodging in Kristeen Crosser’s scenic design and the apparently protean quality of Jessica Bobillot’s costuming. And Portland theater has few pleasures as reliable as Maureen Porter in a lead role; she imbues Behn with an unforced elegance and charm, a silky-strong determination, and a social agility that would serve anyone well in either espionage or theater. Whenever Behn has a choice to make, a balance to strike between competing desires and demands, the glint in Porter’s eyes makes tactical calculation look like the sweetest of human impulses.
Or you might think that Porter doesn’t wind up as the star after all, as one audience member suggested during a post-show discussion last weekend. It’s not (as he seemed to think) that King Charles takes over, narratively or thematically; Behn writes Charles as a rather benign monarch, more a sensualist than a power monger. William Scot, Behn’s back-from-the-dead ex-lover, is a schemer, but a has-been. And Lady Davenant, whose company offers Behn the theatrical opportunity she craves, doesn’t let anyone else get a word in edgewise but only makes a cameo. Yet Damon Kupper embodies all those roles — especially the matronly motormouth Davenant — with such relish, while never really hamming it up, that he does wind up the show’s most memorable performer.
Or you could make a case for Amy Newman as the most arresting changeling here. She appears as bearded, gnome-like jailer, and a slightly bow-backed servant woman with a put-upon air, but shines especially as Nell Gwynne, a young woman who dresses like a boy, talks with a cheeky, slangy wit and displays a sexual frankness that underlines Adams’ implicit comparison of the post-Puritan-repression 1660s with the swingin’ 1960s. Porter’s serene surefootedness is essential to ground the enterprise, but it’s the gender-and-costume shape-shifting by Newman and Kupper that provide this production its comedic zip.
Or, to take another view I can support nearly as much, does all the mad dashing in and out of doors add to the ideas Adams is working with, or does it just distract from them? At times it seems just an excuse to do the play with such a small cast, rather than something intrinsic to the material, and it calls extra attention to the manufacture of the entertainment in progress — which, along with a sprinkling of self-referential theater jokes, feels gratuitous. Furthermore, the sense of pure momentum the farcical elements engender actually saps some of the necessary tension from the predicaments the story presents. There’s that plot against the king, but never a sense of mounting danger or any danger at all, really. Behn is suddenly saddled with that ultra-tight deadline, yet there’s no tick-tock anxiety built up around it.
Ors — or at least Or, — not only subtly link but slightly muddle. And the balancing and blending of the heady and the headlong leaves this feeling less substantial than it might have been, though I’m inclined to think that’s due to the writing more than the production itself.
Or maybe I just need to see it again and keep unifying those opposites.
Or, continues through October 10 by Third Rail Rep at its new home space in Imago Theatre. Ticket and schedule information are here.