Review: Or, | Echo Theatre | Bath House Cultural Center

Who's Afraid of Aphra Behn?

With the farce Or, Echo Theatre begins a season dedicated to the first professional woman playwright.

published Saturday, September 15, 2012

In her famous essay/lecture A Room of One's Own, Virginia Woolf outlined why it was necessary that she, and any woman who strives to earn a living as a writer, needs that very thing: a room of one's own. And in her championing of women writers before her, she gives a big shout-out to the one who made it possible for women to work as a writer: Restoration playwright Aphra Behn.

Liz Duffy Adams returns the gesture with a reference to Woolf and such a room in her farce about Behn, which has the short two-letter-word-plus-comma title Or, the conjunction and punctuation mark that separate title and subtitle in many of Behn's works, not to mention those by other authors of her era. As in her 1686 play The Lucky Chance; Or, An Alderman's Bargain. The latter will get a spring production by Echo Theatre, but they're smartly kicking off their Behn season with Adams' 2009 play.

It's about time a noncollegiate group celebrated Behn. And given that Echo's mission is to solely produce works by women playwrights, it makes sense that Echo would add her to the list of literary and theatrical women that they have feted through drama in their decade-and-a-half of existence, including writers George Eliot, Vita Sackville-West and Woolf, and actresses Sarah Bernhardt and Eleonora Duse.

In Or, Behn does have a room to herself, but it's in a debtor's prison. And because this is essentially a sex farce, there are multiple doors and Behn isn't afforded the time alone that she needs to write. But she does get something as essential to writing: inspiration. To paraphrase Behn in this play, call it "theater of espionage."

This is a nifty set-up by Adams that leads to the real-life relationship between King Charles II (John Venable) with famous English actress Nell Gwynne (Morgan Lauré Garrett), who was one of his mistresses. Here, the widowed Behn starts an affair with Charles after he visits her in disguise (he employed her as a spy in the Dutch war), and she also has one with Gwynne. During the hiding and door-slamming that come with farce, the two love lines stemming from Behn lead to a third that is necessary for a triangle, connecting Charles and Gwynne. 

Directed by Terri Ferguson, the production features anachronistic design elements, courtesy of designers Clare Floyd DeVries (scenic) and Ryan Matthieu Smith (costumes)—Charles with modern sunglasses and pleather pants; and sequin short-shorts under Garrett's 17th-century corset and bodice. Speaking of, don't expect bodice-ripping in this farce, although Cavanagh and Garrett's bosoms heave and Venable ends up shirtless. The steamiest Or, gets is with the make-out sessions between Behn and each of her lovers.a

Both Garrett and Venable play multiple roles, with her slipping into each of her characters more easily than he does. She is particularly funny as the servant Maria. Venable is physically studly but also has the appearance of the quintessential all-American nice-guy/boy-next-door, and that combo turns out to be helpful in how Charles is presented here; a respectable lady-killer.

Adams' language sounds like the literature of the era, a poetess indeed. Considering Behn is a writer, Jessica Cavanagh does a beautiful job of speaking it naturally. With her physicality, she conveys that Behn is more than a bombshell with a sharp, writerly mind and a gift for eloquent conversation; she has a spy's grasp of how to turn unexpected circumstances in her favor. It's one of her best performances I've seen.

Woolf said that women writers should throw flowers on Behn's grave, which is in Westminster Abbey. Cavanagh's performance deserves the same action. Flowers her way, please. Thanks For Reading

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Who's Afraid of Aphra Behn?
With the farce Or, Echo Theatre begins a season dedicated to the first professional woman playwright.
by Mark Lowry

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