Compact "Or," at Shakespeare & Company offers big night in the theater
LENOX >> As Liz Duffy Adams' shrewd, knowing comedy, "Or," begins, its central character, Aphra Behn (played with luminous presence and skill by Tod Randolph in director Alice Reagan's smartly crafted, stylish production at Shakespeare & Company) is in debtor's prison.
Spy, poet, feminist playwright, Aphra is liberated from her cell (imaginatively designed by Sandra Goldmark for the Tina Packer Playhouse's inviting in-the-round configuration) by a masked benefactor who, it turns out, is none other than King Charles II (Allyn Burrows in one of two masterly portrayals).
Aphra's liberation is emblematic of a broader expansion of liberties. King Charles II launched the Restoration, the post-Cromwell period, roughly 1660-1680, during which the theaters were reopened and the arts flourished. The Restoration also opened freedoms for women and Aphra is determined to capitalize. A government spy for years, and apparently one of the most successful, Aphra is looking to come in from the cold to turn her energies to writing — novels, poems and particularly plays.
She sets up shop fr her writing and her bohemian lifestyle in a rented upstairs parlor in a London lodging house where, one evening, she is visited by Lady Davenant (a buoyant Nehassaiu deGannes) who gives Aphra a commission on the condition that she complete the play by morning.
It will not be an easy task. Aphra is playing to a full house. Secreted in her bedroom and a foot locker are, Charles; actress Nell Gwynne (deGannes again), who played both male and female roles on stage and, in Reagan's imagining, played with men and women offstage in the bedroom; and Aphra's former lover, William Scot (Burrows again), a fellow spy and possible double agent. whom Aphra thought had been killed but who shows up seeking safety and support.
To an extent, what plays out over the course of "Or," is farce at its highest, most stylish and intellectually knockabout level. Charade, disguise, deceit, sex, people hiding in bedrooms — and taking full advantage of the situation to boot — and large trunks are all part of a masquerade that is more than theatrical gimmickry; it rises as a result of the nature of who Adams' characters are and the broader social context in which they function.
This is a thoughtful, richly considered production performed seamlessly by three actors who each begin where the other leaves off.
Randolph's Aphra, especially, is determined, clear-headed about what she wants. She defies easy categorization. She's smart, resourceful, committed, open and, at the same time, guarded. She is very much her own woman and it is clear that she writes because she must. Writing, for her, is as natural as food, sleep, sex.
Burrows — who is artistic director of Actors' Shakespeare Project in Boston and has been away from Shakespeare & Company's stages far too long — brings s a sublime blend of intellect, wit and roguish charm to his portrayal of Charles, whose sexual drive was notorious.
"You have a different woman for each day of the week, or so it's said," Aphra says to him at one point.
"An exaggeration, I assure you. I'm a one-woman man," he replies, "at a time, and within reason."
Aphra is one woman Charles has not been able to bed, though not for want of trying. "I am not a professional mistress," she reminds him. "I have greater ambition."
"To be blunt," she tells Nell, "I don't let him f---- me. We exchange every other pleasure but that."
If there is an audacious, unbridled, go-for-broke, Puckish spirit in this production it resides in the diminutive, thoroughly captivating deGannes, who does triple duty as Lady Davenant; Aphra's servant, Maria; and the irrepressible Nell Gwynne, who wins Aphra's love and Charles' lust and demonstrates in the process one can indeed have one's cake and eat it too. This is a woman who embraces the life force and makes her way at full gallop.
Adams' play draws its title from older plays with alternate titles, "one of those greedy get-it-all-in titles," as Lady Davenant describes them, "'the something something OR what you something.'"
But, as Randolph says in the play's opening monologue, there is a "vast, unsettled world; a dense array of seeming opposites" between that "open O and nosing thrust of R." That word, or, is the key structural element, the linchpin of the play's closing moment as, in verse, Aphra, Charles and Nell merrily contemplate the contrasting possibilities that await.
"Or," — a small word; a full night in the theater.
What: "Or," by Liz Duffy Adams. Directed by Alice Reagan
With: Tod Randolph, Allyn Burrows, Nehassaiu deGannes
Who: Shakespeare & Company
Where: Tina Packer Playhouse, 70 Kemble St., Lenox
When: In rotating repertory now through Sept. 4. Selected evenings at 7:30 and afternoons at 2
How: 413-637-3353; shakespeare.org; in person at Shakespeare & Company box office on site
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