A-Plus Is for Aphra

17. November, 2010 Theater No comments

Although based in New York, Liz Duffy Adams is certainly an honorary San Francisco playwright by now, having debuted several plays with Crowded Fire (One Big Lie, The Listener) and the Glickman Award-winning Dog Act with Shotgun Players. Now she’s back with Magic Theatre’s West Coast premiere of Or, (the comma is part of the title), a comedy that debuted at the Women’s Project in New York last year. Having tackled gods and post-apocalyptic landscapes in previous plays, this time Adams takes as her subject the long-neglected Restoration-era writer Aphra Behn, England’s first female professional playwright.

Natacha Roi as Aphra Behn in Or,. Photo by Jennifer Reiley

Or, follows Behn from debtor’s prison, where she wound up for unreimbursed expenses in the service of the crown as a spy, through affairs with King Charles II and actress Nell Gwynne, leading up to the debut of her first play. But it couldn’t be farther from a dry biographical costume drama. It’s a bawdy, hilarious and whip-smart literary sex comedy that turns into a door-slamming quick-change farce. I’ve been a fan of Adams’s work for some time, and for pure entertainment value this may be my favorite thing of hers I’ve seen to date.

Adams has a particular talent and relish for playing with language in her plays, making up entire futuristic dialects for Dog Act and The Listener. The way she mixes contemporary language with Restoration period touches in Or, is a delight.  When characters speak in rhyming couplets, for example, it’s usually done deliberately, as a sort of game. The play’s title may look abstruse out of context, but in context it becomes very funny.

As the producer Lady Davenant tells Aphra in the course of the play, “…I won’t have one of those ‘or’ titles, you know what I mean, one of those greedy get-it-all-in titles, ‘the something something OR what you something,’ I won’t care if the great man did it, they take up half the poster and the typesetter charges by the word, make up your mind and pick one, thank you…” (That’s neither the beginning nor the end of the sentence—Lady Davenant’s entire scene is one mile-a-minute, uninterruptable stream of verbiage.)

Magic artistic director Loretta Greco gives the play a marvelously sharp staging with terrific comic timing. Natacha Roi is enthralling as Aphra, full of weary strength and charisma, and very sure of herself. She makes it easy to believe that this is a terribly formidable woman, the kind that makes history. She also exudes a very comfortable, mature kind of free-wheeling sexuality. Just the way Roi delivers the line, “Oh. Oh dear,” as she responds to King Charles II’s charms despite herself is terribly funny and sexy at the same time. Aphra’s love for Charles is also political, as she finds him to be a breath of fresh air after the repressive, theater-hating puritan regime.

Ben Huber doesn’t have nearly the same force of personality as the slightly foppish, sweet-talking Charles, although he’s charming enough in his own right and he’s amusingly piratical as desperate fugitive William Scott, an ex-lover and former espionage colleague of Aphra’s who claims to know about a plot to kill the king.

Maggie Mason is utterly charming as brassy, foul-mouthed actress Nell Gwynne, with a devil-may-care swagger in men’s breeches.  Enjoying a battle of wits as much as a roll in the hay, she’s a superb match for Aphra, with whom she effuses about the new age of freedom for women that she says is never going to end. Nell is the only one of the several characters Mason plays that feels more like a person than a performance—the others are much more broad and skit-like—but she’s so dang funny in all her roles that it’s hard to begrudge some difficulty in suspending disbelief. She has hilarious tour-de-force moments both as the overwhelmingly chatty theatrical producer Mrs. Davenant and as the surly, always-grumbling maid Maria that are well worth exit applause.

Some of the biographical exposition is awkwardly transparent here and there, but one scarcely cares about that because for the whole 85 minutes with no intermission it’s an absolute delight. It’s also refreshing as a straight-out celebration of free love, as none of the main characters are the least bit monogamous and they make no bones about it. But it’s a celebration of so many things: of women, of sex, of writing, of the hope of a new era, and especially of theater.

The characters don’t make a big deal about being characters in a play, but every time people talk about the play Aphra’s writing we’re fully aware that they could as easily be talking about the play she’s in. When something in the assassination plot strikes her as too convenient to be true, Aphra says, “If I don’t trust my instincts as a spy I have to trust them as a playwright.” While Adams celebrates theatrical conventions throughout this tribute to the first lady of the theater, she also uses them to set up expectations just to upturn them to uproarious effect. It’s a comedy tailor-made for theater people, but also for anyone who loves literature, love, laughter, or what you will.

Through December 5
Magic Theatre
Fort Mason Center, Building D
San Francisco, CA

Show #118 of 2010, attended November 10.

About author

No comments yet.

Be first to leave your comment!




Your comment:

Add your comment