Or, by Liz Duffy Adams. Directed by Jeffrey Mousseau.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
Angela Rauscher and Jason Schumacher; photo: Ron Shannon
"We all, frankly, inhabit opposites within..."
There is a great effect in good theater, not one that would seem great today in this era of electronic magic, but it is a pertinent and permanent traditional effect that isnít seen often any longer: the passage of time is presented "avista" (within your sight) as lights slowly fade down, hold at a low point of illumination and then slowly come back up to a different look; night has passed and the dawn is upon you. It has never failed to work for me and the effect can be seen, right now, in Hudson, New York as Stageworks Hudson uses it in its season opener, "Or," a play about a playwright who works at her desk through the night rather than deal with her personal issues. Let us thank Frank Den Danto III for bringing us back to this theatrical reality. And for doing it so well.
As directed by Jeffrey Mousseau "Or," is the subtitle indication of a much larger play that we never get to see. The world picture is only marginally alluded to in this play. It moves us, instead, through the sordid private life of one-time spy, one-time married, part-time almost mistress, soon-to-be playwright Aphra Behn, the first woman in England to earn her living as a writer. It is 1668 and she is writing a play about... something we never hear about and living under the patronage of King Charles II. It is the Restoration and this new play is a Restoration comedy par excellence.
A three-hander with very talented actors in the small cast, this play is sometimes just plain funny as actors appear, disappear, bob up again in a different costume and even change their gender right before our eyes. In the only single role in the show, Angela Rauscher turns in an appealing character named Aphra Behn. Rauscherís Aphra is much more open about her past than any Aphra before her has been. Whether or not Ms. Adams, the playwright, has had source material never seen before or not, she paints a full picture of the woman whose life remained a mystery to her contemporaries as well as to modern scholars. If she has done this from the creative center of her soul, then Brava! This is a job well done.
Rauscher is strong in the role, dominant and controlling. Her performance never accelerates into third gear, but it doesnít have to do so even when third gear is holding sway over her stage buddies. Instead she maintains a neat cruising speed, only losing her grip momentarily when she kisses the king. Even her sexual escapades with Nell Gwynne seem more harmless fun than gender-bender option. The more manly aspects of her character are seen in subtle ways, usually, and the honesty in Aphraís belief in her career future is entirely due to Rauscherís fine performance.
Abby Lee plays Nell Gwynne, orange-vendor and actress, as well as Maria, the maid, the 1960's Prologue to the play and a Jailor. The relevance the author wants to get into this play with its "resonance to the 1960s" is made within the context of the piece and doesnít really need the role of Prologue to do so. Adams needs to trust her material more. What she has written rings true for many of the 1960s crowd without the pointer and lesson at the outset.
Leeís Gwynne, cross-dressed to look like a boy, is charming. Her freedom of movement and gesture is a delight, making Gwynne very much a living person and not a caricature. As Maria, she is heavy-duty comedy and a much needed relief from the will-she-wonít-she-is-she-isnít-she sturm und drang of Nell Gwynne.
The funniest and most tiring roles are played by Jason Schuchman who dances around King Charles II, spy William Scott, and arts patron Lady Davenant. Sometimes Schuchman actually needs to be in two places at once and with the directorís superb help he manages it. This is a tricky acting assignment which he pulls off brilliantly. If there is true physical comedy in this play, it is contained within his performance. A ten-point out of ten possible for his Lady Davenant which he pulled off with aplomb. Wigs off to Schuchman! A good job.
Excellent production values are brought to the fore in Sarah Edkins excellent and theatrical set, Denise Massmanís fine costumes (with breakaway velcro connections I hope) and Den Dantoís lighting. Byron Nilssonís sound work was just fine..
The story told in this play may or may not be true, but as an entertainment rather than a history lesson it is true to itself and its intent. Mousseau masters the quick-change comedy form and even if the product isn't deep and enlightening, it is historical and hysterical at the same time, a ninety minute one-act play thatís deserving of a second act, but there just isnít one available. Pity. I could have used more of this sort of laughter on a hot summer night.
Or, plays at Stageworks Hudson, 41-A Cross Street, Hudson, NY, through July 4. For information and tickets call the box office at 518-822-9667 or check their website at www.stageworkshudson.org.