Liz Duffy Adams’ play Or, begins with a ukulele player (Patty Pablo), crowned with a laurel of roses, hair streaked with bleach, strolling down the aisle reciting a blank verse meditation on the ambiguous title. Its protagonist, Aphra Behn (Dina Soltan), the first English woman to have a successful career as a playwright, and a former spy with a mysterious past (she went by the codenames “Astrea” or “One-Six-Oh”) is similarly difficult to pigeonhole.
In 1666, Behn sits in a private cell in a London debtors’ prison, deliberately annoying her jailor (Zoe Walpole) with rhyming couplets even as she begs for another pot of ink. Thankfully, King Charles II (Peter Mikhail), in recognition of her prior service, arrives incognito to spring her out of prison. After much negotiation and witty repartee, Behn is ensconced in a room of her own, elegantly arranged with second hand furniture (artfully selected by scenic designer R. Scott Hengen), and smoking “damned good weed” on a chaise lounge with Nell Gwynne (Walpole again), a legendary actress known for playing both boys and girls.
Behn’s name is known to theater historians, even if it’s relatively unknown to American audiences. Were we to pretend sexism did not play a role in this lack of recognition, we might note that Restoration-era playwrights simply don’t receive the same attention in the U.S. as they do in Britain. (I’ve only once had the opportunity to see her work staged.) Because the details of much of Behn’s early life are obscure, Adams is free to imagine a heroine who frequently defies easy definition: a non-conformist dedicated to the government of the man she sees as an enlightened monarch who is leading England to a golden age of freedom and opportunity.
Adams’ Behn is also a polyamorous bisexual, so not surprisingly, Adams chooses to structure her play along the lines of the sex-farces popular at the time. Gwynne, the King, and a long-missing former lover and double-agent, William Scot (Mikhail), all traipse through Behn’s drawing room, into her bedroom, downstairs, to the pub, or inside a cabinet, all the while she tries to meet a deadline for the loquacious Lady Davenant (Mikhail). It’s light entertainment, but Adams gives us gorgeous poetry spoken by some sexy and smart characters.
Soltan is a charismatic lead. Her skillful control of her brow not only communicates the emotional underpinning for Behn’s speeches, but a silent commentary on the speeches of others. Walpole is a playfully saucy Gwynne and a devoted Marie, Behn’s deadly efficient servant and sidekick who has been with her since her spying days. Mikhail’s ability to enact both the benevolent sensualism of Charles and the impulsive desperation of William is particularly well delineated considering he doesn’t have the luxury of a costume change. Most importantly, the cast has remarkable chemistry, no doubt facilitated by Ian Claar’s work as a fight and intimacy choreographer.
Adams’ look back to the Restoration also keeps an eye on the hippie counter-culture. History does not repeat, but the same idealism that Adams captures in her script echoed through 1960s San Francisco. Coincidentally, Theatre Prometheus’ production opened the same week we marked the 50th anniversary of Woodstock.
Director Chelsea Radigan highlights those anachronisms with the company’s small budget: Candles light kitschy portraits of Jimi Hendrix as a cavalier and Janis Joplin as a madonna. Behn and Gwynne are dressed by costume designer Madison Booth in outfits that seem at home in both the 1660s and 1960s. If 6 was 9, indeed.
Or, premiered in 2009 when many American artists imagined that the election of Barack Obama would usher in a new degree of artistic freedom, much as Charles did for Behn and her contemporaries. Of course, Behn still needed powerful patrons to pursue a career. Likewise, today’s playwrights, if they wish to break into larger theaters, often need the imprimatur that comes from graduating from one of a half-dozen prestigious writing programs and maintaining favor with the tastemakers on the payroll of the nation’s regional theaters. It is perhaps remarkable that in a less hopeful year, a light farce can remind us that while neither the Restoration nor Flower Power led to a golden age, repressive regimes like that of The Protectorate can still give way to greater freedoms.
To Aug. 17 at 545 7th St. SE. $20-$30. theatreprometheus.org.