LENOX — Poet, playwright, spy. It should come as little surprise, then, that 17th-century writer Aphra Behn was best known for her comedies of intrigue. Her own life, as depicted in Liz Adam Duffy's "Or," — which is in repertory through Sept. 4 at Shakespeare & Company's Tina Packer Playhouse — was one of intrigue, disguise, and masquerade.
Adams has designed the play for a cast of three two women — one of whom plays Aphra; the other plays Aphra's new love, actress Nell Gwynne, a maid named Maria and an arts patroness named Lady Davenant — and one man, who plays Aphra's sometime lover and benefactor, King Charles II, and her ex-lover, William Scott, a double agent.
Alice Reagan, who is directing Shakespeare & Company's production, first saw "Or," in 2009 when it had its first performances by the Women's Project in New York (the world premiere came a year later at Magic Theater in San Francisco.
"It's a machine, the way it works," Reagan said in the backstage Green Room at Shakespeare & Company's Elayne P. Bernsteim Theatre, where she was joined by her cast — Tod Randolph as Aphra, Allyn Burrows and Nehassaiu deGannes.
"It has lightning quick changes and comedy-tragic elements. We are going for those moments of shock and sadness."
Born in 1640, Behn, who died in 1689, is considered the first woman ever to have ever earned a living as a playwright. To support herself after the death of her husband, a Dutch merchant, she worked as spy. Eventually, she gave up spying and turned to writing plays, at least 15 of which were produced during her lifetime.
"Or," turns on the opportunity Behn is given to leave spying behind forever when an influential arts patroness commissions her to write a play for her theater. The catch is that Behn must complete the play virtually overnight. The job becomes a real challenge when Charles, Nell and William all wind up, quite by chance, in Aphra's rooms at the same time.
It's an opportunity, Randolph says, "that's been long hoped for and not expected. It's a chance to work the way she wants.
"In order to become a writer she chooses to detach. She chooses not to continue to feel feelings from the past but, rather, to use those feelings as fodder for creating what she wants to create.
"For a woman to have any kind of power, especially in those times [the Renaissance], she has to detach. It makes her a different kind of person."
To some degree deGannes has one of the stiffest challenges in "Or,", a breathless nearly three-page monologue.
"That speech reveals much about how Lady Davenant thinks or doesn't quite think," deGannes said. "I'm having fun with it."
With regard to Nell, who became a lifelong lover of Charles, deGannes says she really loves "how Adams has taken history and used it in Nell, the high and the low."
Burrows moves between two radically different characters. He characterizes William Scott as "a rogue who crashes through life"; who sort of operates on the belief "why open a door unless you can put your face through it? Aphra understands him and that is why he seeks refuge with her."
Charles, says Burrows, is the kind of man who, literally and figuratively, "finds that intimate space famous people go to when they're scared.
"Charles' love for Aphra is a sign of respect, awe and attraction."
"Charles is the whole package," Reagan said, "and Alan plays him so simply."
There is a heart to this play, deGannes says, and it beats, Randolph adds, in the "idea of creating a new world where there's some freedom."
"It's rooted in decency," Burrows said, "especially with resonances of today."
"There is a lot of chaos in the world," Randolph said, "but (like the characters in 'Or,'), we have an oppprtunity to make something beautiful — to make art, theater, poetry; to make a new world; to make love."
What: "Or," by Liz Duffy Adams. Directed by Alice Reagan
Who: Shakespeare & Company
Where: Tina Packer Playhouse, 70 Kemble St., Lenox
When: Now through Sept. 4. In rotating repertory. Selected evenings at 7:30 and afternoons at 2
How: 413-637-3353; shakespeare.org; in person at Shakespeare & Company box office at 70 Kemble St.