Aphra Behn was arguably the most dangerous playwright in Restoration England. A former spy who believed in personal freedom, free love and the power of the word, Behn's most unsettling trait was perhaps her gender. What sort of woman would write so openly of her sexual desires with Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan army only recently toppled from power?
Liz Duffy Adams takes a stab at explaining the wonderful mystery of Aphra Behn in her play Or, currently being produced by Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble. Under Ellie Schwetye's direction Or, is a rollicking feminist comedy that portrays Behn as an idealist, an activist, a radical and a great poet of the human heart.
Adams' script makes several nods toward Restoration theatrical conventions of the late 1600s, such as its center-stage declamations of poetry and the sauciness of the dialogue. At the same time Aphra and her friends Nell Gwynne and King Charles II are part of the here and now — swearing and joking like the cast of Girls and living their lives to a hip-hop backbeat of Missy Elliott, Lauryn Hill, Queen Latifah and, yes, some Joni Mitchell for good measure. As Schwetye notes in the program, 300 years may separate the real-life Aphra from Latifah, but they both discuss the same topics in their work: Carving out a place of their own in a male-dominated world, making decisions for themselves, and being the baddest women they can be. The combination of Restoration poetry and twentieth-century female MCs is surprisingly and intoxicatingly effective.
The same can be said of Rachel Tibbetts' work as Aphra. Playing a heart-on-her-sleeve poetess in the midst of a personal and professional crisis, Tibbetts breathes fire into lines such as "I will have a higher honor; I will have undying fame as a playwright." That passion is not reserved merely for Aphra's ideals; Tibbetts brings an admirable heat to Aphra's many flirtations.
Those dalliances may prevent her from ever achieving her dream, however. Fresh out of debtors' prison and out of the spy game as well, Aphra is given a golden opportunity to have her first play produced, but only if she can finish it by morning. Her current lovers, the famous actress Nell Gwynne (Nicole Angeli) and King Charles of England (John Wolbers), are powerful distractions. The arrival of her former paramour and fellow spy William Scott (Wolbers again) is even more compelling, especially given his news about about a plot against the king.
Wolbers, resplendent in a period suit in delicate shades of purple, violet and heliotrope, makes a charming and dashing king. He handles the high-flown language well, shading everything he says with an arch phrasing that suggests the theater-loving Charles views being king as the role of a lifetime. But as dazzling as Elizabeth Henning's costume design is for Charles, it pales next to Angeli's electric orange ensemble that serves as the ultimate visual pun for theater buffs. (Gwynne got her start in show biz selling oranges to theatergoers, a job known as "orange girl.") Angeli is coquettish, conspiratorial and a comic natural who brings rippling life into the first great female superstar of the stage. Is it any wonder both Aphra and Charles love her? The fact that she gets the best lines ("All men have to be cocksuckers in these slippery times") gives Gwynne her just due as both a scene-stealer and someone who can deliver a devastating quip with pinpoint precision.
Ultimately, Aphra Behn pulled off her all-nighter and went on to produce nineteen plays, as well as numerous poems and a few novels. And then history passed her by for the next couple hundred years in favor of a cavalcade of male writers. The fact that Patricia Arquette had to advocate equal pay for women this week while accepting her Oscar for best actress only proves that the world should have listened more closely to Aphra. It's not too late.
Or, Through February 27 at the Chapel. Call 314-827-5760 or click here for tickets.