The (not particularly attention-grabbing) title of Liz Duffy Adams’s 2010 play “Or,” refers to the vibrant and complicated state of sexual, intellectual, and political ambiguity in which its main character, the 17th-century playwright Aphra Behn, dwelled. (It’s also a bit of a jest on her tendency to hedge her bets with the titles of her works). Best known for her authorship of the short novel Oroonoko, or, the Royal Slave (1688) and the play The Rover, or, the Banish’d Cavaliers (1677) – her most-revived work in the modern day – Behn was one of England’s first professional female writers, famously lauded by Virginia Woolf for having earned women “the right to speak their minds.” Behn is also a figure cloaked in a fog of historical mystery: before she started writing professionally, she is known to have worked as a spy in Holland for Charles II during the early years of the Restoration, a job that plunged her into deep debt and may have landed her in debtors’ prison upon her return to London in 1666. But other details of her private life and personal history are maddeningly obscured, mostly by Behn herself; she comes to us through history, as her biographer Janet Todd has noted, as an “unending combination of masks.”
That historical uncertainty leaves room for Adams to play with reckless abandon in the sandbox of Behn’s life, taking up real historical characters like Nell Gwynn (one of England’s early actresses), King Charles II, Lady Mary Davenant (the widowed manager of The Duke’s Company), and William Scot (one of Behn’s fellow spies in Antwerp) and weaving them into a good old-fashioned door-slamming farce. We’re in London, 1670, and Behn (Erika Cuenca) is under the gun to finish a play by morning for the Duke’s Company, but she finds herself distracted by the seductive Nell Gwynn (Robin Abramson). Their budding flirtation is interrupted by the unexpected arrival of Scot (Ethan Hova), who has intelligence of a plot against the King’s life he wants to bargain for his safe return to England. Scot’s also here to release a bad case of pent-up desire for Behn, who (in this play, at least) was his comrade-in-arms in more ways than one. The King himself (also played by Hova) turns up wanting a turn in her bed, too (he’s Behn’s lover and patron), so there’s a lot of hiding in cupboards and closets and, because Abramson and Hova play multiple characters, much hilarity with quick costume changes and unexpected entrances. Behn’s evening is spent trying to keep these ex-, current, and future sexual partners apart – with mixed success – while also putting the finishing touches on the play that will launch her career.
Duffy’s writing is witty and spirited, at once a comic celebration of openness and an earnest valorization of the space “in-between” as the space of human creativity and generosity. The play’s queer gender politics suggest parallels between the Restoration – a time marked by sexual libertinism and cultural revolution – and the modern day, but without heavy-handed dot-connecting. Indeed, one of the play’s strengths is its mixing of 16th-century verse with modern vernacular; the weaving of time periods into each other feels fresh and smart and easy. With farce, timing is everything, and director John Shephard has his ensemble in and out of closets and bedrooms (and dresses and cloaks) with delightful rapidity. Clever metatheatrical moments (like the sound cues that ding each time one of Behn’s play titles is mentioned in passing) keep the tone ironic and knowing, an attitude very much in keeping with Restoration comedy, which frequently called attention to its own theatricality and – particularly in Behn’s case – to the author’s often precarious relationship with her audience.