“Pleasure,” is the one word actor Kittson O’Neill uses to describe the “heart” of Liz Duffy Adams’ Barrymore Recommended production of Or, in which O’Neill plays the pioneering female playwright Aphra Behn (1640-89) a wise-cracking poet with men and women under her thumb.
Or, is the second Hedgerow winter show in a row to be Barrymore Recommended. Last year’s On the Verge received the same accolade, which also featured O’Neill as the director, Aaron Cromie, director of Or, as scenic designer for Verge, and Brock D. Vickers, who played multiple parts as The Man.
“We are very pleased to receive this recognition,” Artistic Director Jared Reed said. “It’s a testament to the hard work, art and skill of this team, the second year they’ve been so honored, and to Theatre Philadelphia’s acknowledgement of Hedgerow as a professional theatre.”
Adams’ witty farce is set in the late 1600s, after King Charles II (Vickers) had been restored to the throne following the Cromwell era. It follows a day in the life of Behn, a poet who served as a spy for the king, whose failure to pay her lands her in debtors’ prison. Following her release, she has a chance to launch a career as a playwright, but only if she can finish her first play by the next morning. That job is made difficult by a nonstop string of visitors: her royal lover, the king; cross-dressing actress Nell Gwynne (Bloechl); and former lover, double-agent William Scot (Vickers), who may be involved in a plot to kill Charles. She’s faced with the challenge of trying to save the king, resisting Nell’s charms, winning William a pardon, and meeting her deadline.
“It’s very rare as an actress to play a character who is driven by her sexual desires and ultimately triumphs because of them,” O’Neill mused. “She’s basically the anti-Blanche [from A Streetcar Named Desire]. Liz’s take on Aphra dives deeply into the dilemma of being a woman who loves her life, her lovers, and her freedom, but lives in a world that is constantly boxing her into a role she just doesn’t fit. That’s a recipe for tragedy, but in this play it’s a farce.”
Behn (b. c.1640, d. April 1689) is a figure shrouded in mystery. Next to nothing is known about her early life, which is possibly a direct result of Behn intentionally obscuring her own past from the public and from history. Biographer Janet Todd said of Behn that she “has a lethal combination of obscurity, secrecy and staginess which makes her an uneasy fit for any narrative, speculative or factual. She is not so much a woman to be unmasked as an unending combination of masks”. Born to a baron or a barber, a colonel or a cooper, what we do know about Behn is that she worked as a spy for King Charles II, and shortly after became the first English female playwright of renown.
Asked to describe the play, O’Neill said, “‘Or,’ is smart and entertaining. It gives you a belly laugh and turns on a light bulb. If you bring a sense of fun and curiosity to the show, which is exactly what Hedgerow’s audiences bring, you will love it. It reminds us that new plays are fun, history is fun, ladies are fun. Comedy is the secret weapon of big ideas. If I told you you were going to see a feminist play about a 17th-century woman playwright you would probably fake a stomach ache. If I told you you were going to watch a sex-farce crossed with a political spy thriller you would hop right in the car.”
The year 1666 came during a time of turmoil for Behn and for England itself. In September of that year, the Great Fire of London burned for four days, resulting in the destruction of over 13,000 homes and nearly 100 churches and cathedrals. Two years earlier, Aphra lost her husband during the final outbreak of the Great Plague in London, though there is reason to suspect that she separated from him and took advantage of the high death toll to recreate herself as a widow instead of a divorcee. In 1665, the Second Anglo-Dutch War broke out – one of four wars fought between England and the Netherlands in the 16th and 17th centuries – and Behn found herself hired by King Charles II to work as a spy in Antwerp under the pseudonym “Astrea”, with the intention of turning the British expatriate and son of a regicide William Scot into a double agent for the crown. Though exact details of the events that surrounded “Astrea” and “Celadon” (Behn’s pseudonym for Scot in her correspondences) remain murky, there is evidence that Behn’s attempt at intrigue failed, and Scot betrayed her to the Dutch.
As for the “Merry Monarch”, King Charles II. After the execution of his father Charles I at the end of the English Civil War, Charles II was declared king, but was quickly denied power as the Commonwealth of England seized it, leaving England without a monarch for the first and only time in its history.
The Cromwell Regime ran the Commonwealth from 1653-1659, beginning with Oliver Cromwell being named Lord Protector of England and ending at the overthrow of Cromwell’s son, Richard, in 1659. Though Oliver Cromwell served as leader of a supposed English Republic, he was afforded many of the same luxuries as the royals that predated him, living in the same palaces and holding sole power over the government – even being offered the title of King, which he turned down.
Cromwell’s rule over the Commonwealth came along with many reforms based in his Puritan beliefs, which included stricter observances of Sunday, greater punishments for swearing, and making adultery a capital offence. Further acts were passed to punish actors, minstrel performers, fiddlers, and other “vagrants”, as well as gamblers with the severity of rogues and thieves. No stores or manufacturers could do business on a Sunday, and even travel was forbidden without a writ from a justice attesting to its necessity.
In 1660, Charles II was reinstated as king, and the reformation period began. It was under his rule that Charles reopened the theatres that Cromwell had closed, allowing the King’s and Duke’s companies to form, and allowing both companies to hire women. Nell Gwyn was a young daughter of a brothel madam, who sold oranges at performances at the King’s Company theatre. Within a span of a few years, Gwyn became the lead actress and most famous comedic performer in the country at the time. Her fame earned her the attention of the King, eventually becoming one of his many mistresses and bearing him two illegitimate sons. Gwyn is hailed as something of a folk heroine, an embodiment of rags-to-riches, having been born poor and fatherless under the strict Cromwell regime only to rise to fame and money through her talent as an actress, and later by becoming lover to the king himself.