BWW Review: Theatre Prometheus' OR, gives audiences a touch of Aphra Behn in her prime
It's always a thrill, to discover trailblazers of the past whose dreams parallel your own, and whose successes (with any luck) point towards what's in store for you, if you play your cards right.
For women in the theatre Aphra Behn, the 17th century novelist and playwright, is just such a figure; a royalist and a spy, who spent time in debtor's prison when the English Crown refused to pay for her services, Behn seemingly willed herself out of jail and into a career as a writer-the first in English history who lived by her pen, and her wits.
So how do you pay tribute to her genius, her grit, her determination? You write a play about her, natch.
Liz Duffy Adams' play, Or, (note the comma) focuses on Behn's transitional years, at the very moment when she is about to launch her career as a playwright. Starting-appropriately enough-in prison, where even her correspondence causes a stir, we then find Behn in a cramped apartment putting the finishing touches on her first play-a fantastical romance, which is clearly designed for commercial success.
Adams revels in the possibilities of Restoration-era London, the 1660's, when the Puritan-led government (think: Calvinist Taliban, only in Quaker Oats-style round hats) had been forced out of power and a truly randy monarchy had been restored, and the theatre scene revived. The play's title-hanging as it does on that final comma-speaks both to the "anything goes" ethic of those days, as well as the realization that for Behn, anything could happen; she could become a huge hit, or flop and retreat to ignominy in the countryside-or worse. Chance ruled.
Theatre Prometheus has taken over the Capital Hill Arts Workshop space for a couple weeks, and has done Adams proud. Director Chelsea Radigan has assembled a fine cast who gives Or, its best shot. Led by the assured, charismatic Dina Soltan as Behn, you get a taste of adventure, intrigue, sex (well, yeah, it's the 60's) and plots - of the "bang bang, you're dead" variety, not just the drama kind. And although Adams' plot meanders a bit in the later innings, she has created an actor's dream of supporting players taking on multiple roles, complete with quick-changes, doors slamming, cabinets for hiding, etc. - just the sort of thing that packs 'em in to this very day.
Peter Mikhail gets to strut his manly stuff as Charles II, but gives his drag side its due as a theatrical entrepreneur pressuring Behn for a complete play, like, this minute. Zoe Walpole, meanwhile, has entirely too much fun code-switching between the star Nell Gwynn (played here in breeches, for a distinctly androgynous appeal) and a variety of maids and others, each with her own dialect. Both Mikhail and Walpole leave you breathless with their ability to transition from one role to the next, while the stoical Patty Pablo presides over the action as Ensemble-a troubadour who provides commentary, bits of draft dialogue, but who also serves as a confessor for the characters as the plot unfolds.
The Restoration era has often been compared to the 1960's, and this being the big Woodstock anniversary year it's hardly surprising that scenic designer R. Scott Hengen has given us an off-kilter period setting, complete with Dutch-Masters portraits of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, tie-dye draperies, and bead-curtains which frame the simple wood furnishings, broadsheets, and quill. Madison Booth decks out the cast in various costumes-designed no doubt to facilitate lightning-fast changes behind the scenes. Hailey LaRoe lights this tight black box space at the Capital Hill Arts Workshop space nicely, and Kaitlyn E.M. Sapp's sound design had me the moment I heard the opening chords of Joni Mitchell's "Free Man in Paris" - as evocative of Behn's time as Joni's.
This being Summer, Theatre Prometheus' lease on this space hath all too short a date; Or, closes next Saturday night. But it's a gem of a play, with energy and talent to spare, and a more lovely evening at the theatre than this one would be hard to find.
Or, runs through August 17th at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, 545 7th St SE, Washington, D.C. For tickets, visit https://www.artful.ly/theatre-prometheus/store/events/18350.