Free Love, or Aphra, Charles, and Nell
Reviewer’s Note: The combination of weather and road closures caused me to arrive late to the theatre on Wednesday night and miss most of the first scene. I apologize to Rep Stage for this inconvenience.
In the 1660s, Charles II was restored to the British throne; the theatres were reopened after a decade of Puritan rule, and for the first time women—among them a future star named Nell Gwynne—were allowed onstage; and Aphra Behn, a former spy, was released from debtor’s prison, whereupon she embarked on a career as one of England’s first professional female writers. Nell eventually became Charles’ mistress; Behn was a favorite at court; and all three form the center of Liz Duffy Adams’ 2009 play Or, (the comma is part of the title), which opened last week at Rep Stage.
Rep Stage bills Or, as a riotous “farcical comedy,” and director Michael Stebbins crams the show with double takes, quick changes, and sudden entrances and exits through a variety of oversized doors. Yet both production and script work best when the drama turns serious, the pace slows, and the farcical business—which at the performance I attended rarely elicited more than scattered chuckles—subsides, allowing us to savor the genuine wit of Adams’ writing.
The actors seem much more comfortable when not bouncing off walls or addressing every third line to the audience. Charlotte Cohn makes an enchanting Behn; with her expressive face and supple voice (Cohn is also a singer), she seems to be always on the verge of hysterics, yet still exudes strength and intelligence—it is no wonder everyone who sees her falls madly in love, including Charles and Nell, who meet in Behn’s parlor (and wind up in her bedchamber).
Jason Odell Williams and Christine Demuth each tackles several roles with varying degrees of success. Williams makes a droll Charles, his dignity only slightly undermined by his flowing black curls and extravagant cravat, then transforms himself physically and vocally to play an unexpectedly dangerous ex-lover of Behn’s, though he struggles at first to find the character’s manic energy. Williams also dons a wonderfully hideous wig and bustle as Lady Davenant, a wealthy widow who owns her own theatre and steals her only scene by relying on an old actor’s trick: refusing to stop talking long enough for anyone else to start.
Especially compared to her costars, Demuth is unable to bring much depth to the role of Nell, who exists mostly as a series of brash poses, her hands on her hips like a sexualized Peter Pan. Demuth is far more effective as Behn’s stooping old housekeeper, Maria, whose pitter-patter walk becomes funnier each time we see it. Maria also gets some of the best lines, as when she urges Behn to write a part for a crafty servant. “You want to act?” Behn asks incredulously. “Oh, I won’t act,” Maria replies. “I could play it in me sleep.” (Demuth also plays a jailor who, unfortunately, I missed.)
As always at Rep Stage, the production design is superb, particularly Melanie Clark’s sumptuous costumes. James Fouchard’s colorful set is ornate without distracting, and Terry Cobb’s lighting design is a crucial element in the play’s moving conclusion. Ann Warren’s sound design includes perhaps a few too many classic rock melodies—I’m still not sure why “Norwegian Wood” plays each time Behn and Nell kiss—though I understand the impulse, given the script’s repeated suggestion that the 1660s were not so different in spirit from the 1960s.
The fact that I missed the first scene yet could slip relatively easily into the plot is a testament to the clearness of Adams’ writing and Stebbins’ direction. Though not without its flaws, Or, proves a charming piece of theatre with unlooked-for substance beneath its gilded surface. On the whole, a fine way for Rep Stage to open its 19th season.