Natcha Roi as Aphra Behn and Ben Huber as King Charles II star in Liz Duffy Adams’ Or, at the Magic Theatre. Below: Maggie Mason as celebrated actress Nell Gwynne. Photos by Jennifer Reiley.
With a wink and a nod to Shakespeare, playwright Liz Duffy Adams explains the title of her play Or, in a spiffily rhymed prologue. It’s about love or lust. Danger or delight. Gay or straight. In other words, anything and everything is on the table for 90 minutes of theatrical enjoyment.
Adams, the linguistically inventive author of Dog Act, an award-winning hit for Shotgun Players in 2004, is once again indulging her love of language in Or, now having its West Coast premiere at the Magic Theatre directed by artistic director Loretta Greco. She dives into the wordplay of 17th-century England and splashes around happily.
“The Puritans have had their day. Now it’s our turn,” says one character. And there’s more than an echo of throwing off the Bush years for a taste of Obama-style hope. There’s also a whiff of the swinging ’60s as characters roll in and out of bed with one another and women are tasting the surge of power that equality could bring.
Like Virginia Woolf before her, Adams is letting “flowers fall on the grave of Aphra Behn,” but hers is not an entirely reverent portrait of the somewhat mysterious woman who was the first of her gender to make a living as a playwright. Adams’ vision of Behn is playful but slightly melancholy. We meet Aphra while she’s still in debtor’s prison because her boss – King Charles II – has not paid her what she’s owed.
But once a dashing, masked stranger enters her cell, the play takes off. The stranger, it turns out, is Charles himself, and once all Aphra’s debts are paid, she’s ensconced in a much more appropriate dwelling where she can write plays, cavort with the king and carry on with Nell Gwynne, the leading actress of her day. This core triangle, with the gorgeous Natacha Roi as Aphra, the hilarious Maggie Mason as Nell and Ben Huber as the philandering monarch, turns into a parallelogram with Huber doubling as William Scott, a fellow spy and possible assassin, and Mason playing the crotchety maid and Lady Davenant, a pioneering lady producer who helped get Aphra’s plays on stage.
Director Greco takes full advantage of the farcical possibilities here, especially as she makes use of a giant wardrobe on Michael Locher’s rustically elegant set. Huber enters the closet as the king, then re-emerges as a drunken Scott. The same is true of Mason’s quick changes as she saunters off stage as the foul-mouthed Gwynne and is back momentarily as the regally attired Davenant (the sumptuous period costumes are by Alex Jaeger). Every time Mason takes the stage, but especially as Lady Davenant and Maria the maid, she can’t help but be the funniest thing going.
In all this rushing around, Charles and Nell find themselves drawn to each other, and neither figure apparently ever met a warm body they couldn’t seduce. So while they’re off trysting in Aphra’s bed, that allows plenty of time for their other characters to take the stage.
There are plenty of jokes at theater’s expense, and amid all the mayhem, Roi’s Aphra remains the picture of seething creativity and abundant intelligence as Aphra, a true artist, puts her days of espionage and adventure behind her as she finds her voice as a poet of the theater.
You laugh and you savor Adams’ skillful blend of 17th-century and contemporary language, but there are shadows and undercurrents to make you think. Comedy and tragedy. Frivolity and substance. It’s definitely not an either Or, situation.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Liz Duffy Adams’ Or, continues through Dec. 5 at the Magic Theatre, Building D, Fort Mason Center, Marina Boulevard at Buchanan Street, San Francisco. Tickets are $45-$60. Call 415 441-8822 or visit www.magictheatre.org for information.