That’s how I feel about Or, at Round House Theatre. On April 12, I saw the show, written by Liz Duffy Adams, directed by Aaron Posner. You may or may not remember him as the playwright and director of No Sisters [reviewed here].
I went into this show as I do many others. It was a pay what you can show (more on that later) and I knew next to nothing about the show. I actually prefer to go to shows that I know very little about because I get to discover everything along with the characters. It’s exciting!
The play begins with Holly Twyford, the actor, introducing us to her character, Aphra Behn, a widow in debtor’s prison from debts accrued while she was a spy for the English now-King, Charles II, who dreams of becoming a playwright.
From the moment Twyford spoke, it was clear that she had absolute mastery of language – be it 17th century or modern English. She deftly moved from rhyming couplets to long soliloquies, performed with the gravitas of a playwright of that era and the familiarity of a contemporary woman.
At the beginning of the play, Twyford delivers a prologue of sorts where she challenges the audience’s assumptions by putting things in opposition that, for Behn, are more like a melange of the two proposed items. For example, “actor or whore,” “gay or straight…or sometimes both.” Behn mingles concepts, facts, fictions into her own world. A world created right before our eyes in this play.
After listening to the Stuff You Missed In History Class podcast episode on Aphra Behn, I learned that most of what was referenced in this insane (and insanely brilliant) show actually aligned with Behn’s life. With a slight caveat that most of Behn’s biography is a series of “maybe” statements. (Record-keeping in the 1660s, am I right??)
She went to Suriname by herself (or with her family), met William Scott (maybe), went back to England (definitely), married a guy named Behn (probably), he died from the plague two years later (let’s go with yes), she went to Antwerp as a spy to connect with Scott again and flirt a little more with him (that wasn’t her mission, that’s just what happened), then finally got back to England, where she ended up in debtor’s prison. And that is where this story begins.
Most of the play takes place in Behn’s new apartment (set designed by Paige Hathaway), with a large window in the back, pillows and a hookah on stage right, door to Behn’s bedroom stage left. Behn’s desk is in the center. The room comes alive in deep crimsons and bathed in lamplight. The whole time, it felt like the room was ablaze: one moment with passion, the next with Behn’s furious mind at work on a manuscript, the next with deceit and betrayal.
The costumes, designed by Kendra Rai, emphasized the divide and melding of the modern age with the English Restoration era. They featured combat boots and corsets, capes and capris. And wigs. The wigs were magnificent. Each character was distinct to the point that I would not have necessarily been able to tell that there were only 3 actors to play all 7 characters.
Which brings me to the other two actors. We’ve talked already about Twyford’s prolific Behn, but Erin Weaver as Nell Gwynne, Maria, and Lady Davenent – let’s talk about that. We are first introduced to Weaver as Nell Gwynne, an actress of the time famous for specializing in “breeches roles,” which means she did a lot of cross-dressing. And this was no exception. Her bawdy attitude, littered with profanity and a cockney accent to boot was captivating. And in the span of just a few minutes offstage, Weaver was transformed in Maria, Behn’s feisty handmaiden with a hunch and glasses. Not two minutes later, Weaver appeared as the fast-talking Lady Davenent. The scene with Lady Davenent and Behn lasted maybe 5 minutes, but Lady Davenent spoke continuously, without hardly a breath, and Behn said nothing at all. The audience applauded after Lady Davenent left the stage in a flourish, never to be seen again in the play. Each of Weaver’s characters was a powerful (and powerfully comedic) woman.
Whenever Behn or one of Weaver’s characters were speaking, I never lost them. Their focus was intense and their engagement with the audience, impeccable. (More on the audience later).
The male characters of the Jailor, Charles II of England, and William Scott were played by Gregory Linington. I enjoyed the male characters as characters, but their arrival usually spelled trouble for Behn. That said, Linington’s hasty switches between King and commoner were hilarious and required a great deal of precision on the part of Linington and the stage crew (bravo).
This play, while informative, while humorous, while engaging, wasn’t about the plot for me. The characters compelled me to keep watching. The plot was a bit of convoluted mess, but it wiggled itself out in the end. I guess All’s Well That Ends Well (topical reference!).
I give this play a 9/10. For me, it’s a must see if you like English accents, wigs, sex, or plots to kill the King. And honestly, who doesn’t like English accents??
Ok, a quick word about pay what you can nights and the audience.
I go to a lot of shows. I can’t always afford to go to every show I want to. I compromise by going to these pay what you can nights, but I don’t think I can stand to go to another one.
Pay what you can audiences are probably the rudest audiences on the planet. No fewer than 5 cell phones went off during the performance. The woman next to me was texting with the brightness on 1000%. People were talking during the show.
I can’t honestly understand why you would be so rude to the actors/crew and the other patrons, but I guess if people don’t pay the full amount for shows, they believe they can act like howler monkeys during mating season.
In my opinion, there should be a collection bucket in the lobby where you drop your cell phone before you enter a theatrical space.
All this is just to say that be warned when you go to pay what you can nights. I love what they stand for because theater should be accessible to all, but the patrons at these shows (or at least the past three I’ve been to) are terrible, awful, no-good, very bad people who impede my enjoyment of the show with their incessant ring tones.