San Francisco Theater Review: OR, (Magic Theatre)

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by Tony Frankel on November 22, 2010

in Theater-San Francisco / Bay Area


Thank goodness Oliver Cromwell died when he did: Parliament restored the monarchy to Charles II, and the Restoration took off when, in 1660, William Davenant and Thomas Killigrew were given a royal warrant to form a theatre company, one that abolished the Puritan rule prohibiting women on the boards — this allowed Nell Gwynne, a favorite of diarist Samuel Pepys, to become a star of the stage. (It’s a wonder that Puritans didn’t blame the 1665 Great Plague and the 1666 Great Fire on theatrical people…or did they?) Gwynne’s celebrity and beauty attracted Charles II, who took her as a mistress, and even fathered her bastard children.

Killigrew would enlist future playwright Aphra Behn to serve as a spy in Antwerp for Charles II, after which she wrote some twenty plays, becoming the first woman to write professionally for the theatre (Behn is buried in Westminster Abbey). In 1677, Nell Gwynne would appear in Behn’s most successful play, The Rover, Or, The Banished Cavaliers. Thus, we have the contextual situation in which we meet the true-life characters of Liz Duffy Adams’ Or, (the title having a comma in it) now playing at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre.

But Adams is not so much concerned with historical accuracy as she is with playful language, cross-dressing, dalliance, and the new birth of feminism wrought by the Restoration. She has crafted a genuinely funny, delightfully frivolous, and outlandishly farcical play that, although quite entertaining, doesn’t quite live up to the prologue’s promise that this play will draw a parallel between the sexual liberation of the Reformation and that of the modern era (we are even reminded to turn off our cell phones in the midst of the flowery, Shakespearean-like verse that introduces the show).

We begin in debtor’s prison, where budding playwright Aphra Behn (Natacha Roi) uses her feminine wiles on a libidinous jailer (Maggie Mason, in the first of four roles) to send letters of petition requesting payment for debts incurred in the service of the crown. Charles II (swarthy Ben Huber) appears masked in her cell, and she submits to the King’s romantic advances; he unmasks himself and admits that he has paid off her debts — he wants a mistress and she wants an abode in which to write her plays. Done.

The rest, and therefore majority, of the play takes place in the drawing room of Behn’s boarding house, where we find cross-dressed actress Nell Gwynne (Mason) puffing on a pipe, saying, “Good weed. . . I haven’t been able to afford it since they raised the tax.”

The farce is on as Gwynne not only wants a part in Behn’s new play, but wants to play with Behn’s parts, even after Behn discovers that “he” is a “she.” Charles shows up and takes Gwynne into the bedchamber (thinking it’s a handsome lad he is getting, but certainly not upset that it is a woman). Behn’s double-agent (and presumed to be dead) husband William Scott (also Huber) shows up with a plot to assassinate Charles. While Scott hides in the vanity, William Davenant’s wife appears, requesting that Behn finish a play by the next morning, but “no titles with ‘or’ in it” (a brilliant monologue delivered by Mason).

All three actors play their door-slamming roles with assurance; Roi is tough and sexy as Behn, and Mason succeeds flawlessly by creating distinguishing characteristics, physically and vocally (her take on the cursing maidservant, Maria, is flat-out uproarious). Huber, stunning, sexy and suave, needed to make his Charles and William a bit more distinct from each other, but his quick entrances and exits are impeccable.

Director Loretta Greco keeps the action sharp on the thrust stage, and she is cognizant of the view for all audience members in this thrust playhouse. York Kennedy’s lights mimic flickering candlelight perfectly, and Alex Jaeger’s costumes are lovely — it’s an especially nice touch when Behn is changed onstage from drab jail clothes to a corseted dress.

The title of Or, refers to the common practice of two-titled manuscripts written before and during the Restoration, such as The Man of Mode, Or, Sir Fopling Flutter by Sir George Etherege. Adams cleverly incorporates various rhyme schemes used in the 1660’s (including iambic pentameter) with modern lingo; it is a device that is used to compare feminist ideals through the ages. The finished result is an evening of silly fluff containing some devastatingly humorous moments. Certainly, this may be enough for some, but — however creative Adams’ script may be — there are moments that lag or border on tedium, largely occurring when Adams tries to correlate the 1660s to the 1960s.

French Farce, such as that of Moliere, was in full swing when Charles II left France and established theatre in London — and it is in that vein of farce that Or, works best. Adams should stick to the caper, romance and romp, and eliminate the attempt at the profundity of it all. Ultimately, the very title is perplexing. Is Adams saying that not much has changed in the complex relations of man and woman, whether then or now? Is it merely a play on words? Until that is clarified, it would be best to stick to the farce.

In other words: for Or, to soar, forget the “or” — especially that comma.

photos by Jennifer Reiley

Magic Theatre
Fort Mason Center, Building D
ends on December 5, 2010
for tickets, call 415.441.8822 or visit Magic Theatre

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