“Pleasure,” is the one word actor Kittson O’Neill uses to describe the “heart” of Liz Duffy Adams’ farce 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.
The play is set in Restoration England in the 1660s, after the Puritans were pushed out of England, the theaters reopened and women were finally allowed to pursue careers as actors. The wit and high comedy of aristocratic manners created during this reconstruction of English theatre came to be known as Restoration comedy, and out of this sensation came the first female playwright, Aphra Behn.
The madcap rush of antics, gender bending, and passion takes place during one night in the life of Aphra: poet, spy, and libertine. Behn is sprung from debtors’ prison after a disastrous overseas mission, and is attempting to write a play for one of only two London companies, despite interruptions from celebrated actress Nell Gwynne (Bloechl); her complicated royal love, King Charles II (Vickers); and her very dodgy ex-love, double-agent William Scott (also Vickers)—who may be in on a plot to murder the king in the morning.
“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.”
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.”
O’Neill is a Philadelphia based actor, director, and dramaturg. She last appeared behind the scenes here as the director of the 2015 Barrymore Recommended production of On the Verge, and has since worked on The Winter’s Tale for Shakespeare in Clark Park, and Three Christs of Manhattan for InterAct (co-directed with Seth Rozin). Up next she is directing A Knee That Can Bend and is reviving her performance in Being Norwegian for A Play, a Pie and a Pint! O’Neill has worked as a dramaturg for both Playpenn and The Kennedy Center and is the Artistic Associate of Interact Theater Company, a graduate of The Shakespeare Lab and the Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s internship program.
“I actually directed a reading of Aphra’s play The Rover for the Philadelphia Artists Collective.
O’Neill recalled. “It was incredibly useful to dive into her theatrical brain and it really gave me some insights into her world and her survival techniques. Some of those insights will definitely show up in the rehearsal room. I’ve been doing some research about her and this tricky point in English history. I like to start rehearsal with all the “what does this mean?” questions answered so I can focus on playing.”
Adams’ history-based fiction occasionally takes liberties with the facts, but rolls through 1666 England with cartoonish, yet deeply fleshed out characters, and an eye towards a love of theatre. Her mastery of language rivals that of Behn herself, her characters are full of spark and life, and her story interweaves biography and wit through each scene.
“I did a reading of a different Liz Duffy Adams play at the Jean Cocteau Repertory in New York,” O’Neill related, “a now defunct victim of gentrification. It was a mad wild play about lady pirates called, We, Or Isabella the Pirate Queen Enters the Horse Latitudes. I loved it and have been a fan of Liz’s work ever since. I try to read everything she writes.”
An intricate play such as Or, (the comma is part of the title) will be in the hands of a capable director, as friend, and fellow artist Aaron Cromie takes the helm of the production. O’Neill pitched the play and the director to Artistic Director Jared Reed after the success of last year’s production of On the Verge.
“Aaron and I performed The Body Lautrec in the Fringe two years ago and it was a huge hit,” O’Neill said. “I ended up doing a lot of the puppetry, which included a full body doctor puppet who did a live dissection on stage. It’s a strangely intimate act, to animate another person’s artwork and he and I discovered that we were real art partners. He designed the set for On the Verge last year and created a massive bear puppet for my production of The Winter’s Tale this past summer. He has never been my director before and I’m very excited to explore this sexy-mad play with him!”
Adams’ play premiered Off Broadway at Women’s Project Theater and has been produced numerous times since.