REVIEW: Kickshaw’s ‘Or,’ is a smart, funny primer on pioneering playwright Aphra Behn

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Mary Dilworth and Vanessa Sawson in Kickshaw Theatre’s “Or,”. (Sean Carter Photography)

When a character in Kickshaw Theatre’s production of Liz Duffy Adams’ “Or,” observed that “freedom, especially for women, is only possible under an enlightened monarch,” a shudder made its way through my body.

Guess I’m just a little extra tense these days, for some reason?

Yes. I suppose I am. But the moment also points to how timely Adams’ 2009 “neo-Restoration” comedy often feels, despite its historical setting. Focused on the pioneering seventeenth century playwright Aphra Behn (Vanessa Sawson), who’d previously worked as a political spy, the 80 minute play begins with Behn in a debtors’ prison’s private cell, writing a letter (in verse) to King Charles II to plead her case. Through this letter, we learn that London’s been ravaged by fire, war, and Plague, and that she landed in jail because her work for the beleaguered government – perhaps not surprisingly – went uncompensated.

However, when an amorous, mysterious visitor wearing a mask (Charles, played by Dan Helmer) arrives in her cell, everything changes. Aphra’s debts are paid; she regains her freedom; and she plans to focus her time and talents on writing plays for the theaters recently re-opened by Charles (they’d been shut down by Oliver Cromwell’s Puritans). The rest of the play thus unfolds in Aphra’s workspace, where she’s visited by one of the first and most successful stage actresses of the day, Nell Gwynne (only men had performed on stage previously), played by Mary Dilworth; King Charles II; patroness Lady Davenant (Dilworth); a former lover from her spy days, William Scot (Helmer), who may or may not have information about a plot to kill King Charles; and elderly servant Maria (Dilworth).

“I can write and chat at the same time,” Aphra tells Nell early on. It’s a good thing, because the playwright’s supposed to write an entirely new stage drama in the course of one night for Lady Davenant, despite all the amorous and cloak-and-dagger goings-on.

And if you noticed the repetition of Dilworth’s and Helmer’s names above, that’s because they each play three characters, and not insignificant part of “Or,”’s fun involves watching three people – one of whom (Sawson) plays just one role – manage the quick-timing, multi-character, door-slamming elements of a full-out bedroom farce.

Director Suzi Regan effectively manages Adams’ material, particularly given the script’s many stylistic twists and turns. (I’ll confess that it took me a good while to “find my footing,” so to speak.) We go from a street-clothes-to-period-costume prologue (by Sawson), to a somber prison scene in verse that takes a sexy turn, to a Sapphic meeting-of-the-minds between Nell and Aphra, to a more serious spy plot, to a flirty farce, to an unabashed love-in, to a feminist moment of hard truth and high drama, to a surprisingly quiet coda that nonetheless feels exactly right.

Dilworth and Helmer both do strong (multi-)character work in “Or,” with Dilworth particularly shining as the scene-stealing, talking-non-stop patroness Lady Davenant. Both actors have quick changes to make during the course of the show, but Helmer is the one who must repeatedly roll through the back of a trunk (stationed against the set’s back wall), make a lightning-fast costume change, and burst through a door and onto the stage. His lusty Charles is a charmer, but the intensity he eventually delivers as Scot is what will stop you in your tracks.

Finally, stitching the whole together is Sawson, who shifts gears with seeming ease. I always have issues with movies and plays that make the writing process look like some kind of frantic dictation from God – this review alone has taken me two days to extract from my brain, for heaven’s sake – but putting that aside, “Or,” gives a groundbreaking female artist her due and then some, taking elements from Behn’s true biography and smashing them together into something kind of amazing.

Em Rossi’s costume design must nod to both Behn’s historical period and the necessity for quick-changes, and she hits her mark, particularly in regard to Lady Davenant’s hysterical gown and towering wig. Aaron Delnay’s user-friendly scenic design, complemented by Heather Brown’s lighting and Lynn Lammers’ props (if you can, do stay after the show to see everything up close and learn more), makes Aphra’s writing den a cozy haven and a playground. The show’s design elements (including Quintessa Gallinat’s sound) also seize upon the way Adams makes links between the 1660s and a 1960s – both times of great upheaval, change, and openness to new ideas.

As Lady Davenant points out, openness can be exasperating at times, too, resulting in “one of those greedy get-it-all-in titles, ‘the something something OR what you something. … Make up your mind and pick one, thank you!”

But the word “or” is ultimately about alternatives that needn’t necessarily be opposites (“Those ors divide less than they subtly link,” Adams writes in the play’s prologue). Aphra Behn, a fiercely smart woman of many talents and identities – she claimed herself to be a Plague widow, though historians question whether Behn peddled this tale simply in order to live a free, unbothered life – was all about embracing all the unconventional alternatives the world threw her way. So “Or,” despite it’s tiny title, is about a woman’s voracious hunger for a variety of experiences in work, life, and love.

Luckily for her, she had that whole “enlightened monarch” thing going for her …

Kickshaw Theatre continues its run of “Or,” at Ann Arbor’s Interfaith Center for Spiritual Growth through March 4. For information, visit www.kickshawtheatre.org.

This independent review was partly funded by my Patreon page, which allows readers who value local professional theater criticism to pledge a monthly amount – anything from $1 to $30 – to support my efforts. If you appreciated this review, and would like to see more content like this, please consider pledging via the link above. Thanks!

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