Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, MA
through September 4, 2016
by Stuart Gamble
In the opening prologue of “Or,” Aphra Behn (Tod Randolph), the first woman playwright in the English language, explains the possible meanings of the play’s rather ambiguous title: “We all embody opposites: spy or poetess, virtuous or whore, wrong or righteous, lust or love, now or then, male or female.” Indeed, Behn and the other colorful characters that inhabit this intriguing new play embody these dualities.
The story begins as Behn is serving time in a debtors’ prison. A masked man arrives who woos her and reveals himself to be England’s King Charles III (Allyn Burrows). He tells her, “I’m a one woman man—at a time.” But Behn, gently rebuffs his advances, claiming that she is determined to be a playwright, at the expense of a pampered life. It is important to know that Behn, in fact and fiction, was also a spy.
Matters become quite complicated as Behn tries to compete a play and, at the same time persuade her presumed dead lover, the roguish William Scott (also played by Burrows) not to kill the king. Her only allies are the tart-tongued actress Nell Gwynne (kittenishly played again by Nehassaiu deGannes and her loyal housekeeper Maria (also deGannes).
The performances are exuberant. DeGannes proves to be the most dynamic of all, changing her characters quickly and believably in a blink of an eye. Burrows comes off best as the dastardly Scott displaying the intensity of a man who has seen a lot of ugliness in the world. His Charles III is sweet, but a bit too wan. Tod Randolph has the most difficult role of all, as an artist whose creative work is both influenced by and interrupted by the extraordinary events in her life. She meets these challenges by showing the passion beneath her cool exterior and by her ability to stand up to any opponent, man or woman.
At times, the play’s storyline becomes a bit convoluted, but its themes of freedom arising from oppression come shining through. The dramatic tone of “Or,” however, shifts rather abruptly from witty comedy to dark drama as does the unevenness of the play’s language which perfectly echoes 17th-century rhetoric, but often resorts to contemporary vulgarity. Still, the simple set designed by Sandra Goldmark and the richly colorful, authentic costumes designed by Govane Lohbauer suggest a long ago, fascinating time.