England in the latter half of the 17th century was known as the Restoration era with the return of the monarchy after the English Civil War and the rule of Oliver Cromwell. Once on the throne, King Charles II re-opened theaters, licensing the two companies and permitting women to take up acting as a profession. It spurred a revival in drama and a bit of loosening of social mores after the repressive reign of the puritans.
In Or, (the comma is a significant part of the title), Liz Duffy Adams weaves together the lives of several prominent figures of the time into a free-wheeling farce that blends biographical details with door-slamming, quick-change comedy and bawdy sexual notes to produce a smart, entertaining work.
Aphra Behn aspires to be an accomplished playwright, but distractions abound. The King has bailed her out of debtor’s prison in reward for her past service as a spy, and now wants her as his mistress. Nell Gwynne, a popular stage actress, also has amorous designs upon her. And just to add a bit more complication, an old lover and former espionage companion, William Scott, appears on the scene. He’s attempting to pull her into a plot to murder the king. Despite all the temptations, Aphra is really trying to finish her script by a morning deadline.
But women are great multitaskers, and this woman maneuvers around each potential lover with wit, and some creative quick thinking. Laurel Ullman is marvelous as the clever playwright, fighting to maintain control, but also exuding a sensuality that makes it easy to see why others are so attracted to her. She shines both in her moments of rhyming couplets banter as in her ever so reluctant resistance of succumbing to her passions.
Ryan and Kelly McDaniel are thoroughly engaging in the roles of the Aphra’s major distractors. This king is charming, a sweet talker who seems to live for pleasure, in love with Aphra for both her mind and body. He’s also smitten by the free-spirited, foul-mouthed Nell who is unashamedly up for any proposed sexual adventure. Understandably, this husband-wife duo generates lively chemistry between them, and also with Ullman, which keeps things delightfully sexy. What’s most engaging is how all utterly embrace a “free love freely given” mentality – a link to the 1960s that is echoed with the psychedelic flowers painted on the doors.
Ryan McDaniel also handles the role of William Scott, making astounding, quick costume changes. His morphing from a pleasure-seeking monarch to a desperate fugitive looking for vengeance are quite amusing. Kelly McDaniel also has some hilarious moments playing the grumbling maid and then the fast-talking-can’t-be-interrupted Mrs. Davenant who has commissioned Aphra’s play. (A special shout out to the dressers who helped these two performers with their quick changes.)
Under the sturdy direction of Charles Machalicky, this Switchyard Theatre Company production is a stellar example of near-perfect comedic timing. More than merely historical drama playing a bit loose with the facts, Or, celebrates the theatre while also poking fun at it. Aphra Behn would become a leading playwright of her time, lauded by Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own for earning women “the right to speak their minds.” Or, not only offers a tribute to her, but it’s also intellectually fun.
The Switchyard Theatre production of Or, runs through Sunday at Burning Coal Theatre. For more information visit http://burningcoal.org/.