Maggie Siff and Kelly Hutchinson in Or,
(© Carol Rosegg)
Maggie Siff and Kelly Hutchinson in Or,
(© Carol Rosegg)
More comic bodice-ripper than feminist tract, Liz Duffy Adams' sprightly farce Or,, at the Women's Project, perfectly suits its inspiration, the 17th-century playwright and poetess Aphra Behn. A pioneer in her day -- she was among the first Englishwomen to earn a living by her pen -- Behn never shied from sensationalism in her life or her work. Her anything-goes approach, along with her eagerness to embrace the full spectrum of sexuality, would one day endear her to the counterculturalists of the 1960s much as it did her post-Puritan contemporaries.

Adams' text -- enhanced by Wendy McClellan's energetic direction -- toggles adroitly between the 1660s and the 1960s, and between the formalities of iambic pentameter (as in a curtain-opener speech containing the obligatory cell phone warning) and a more contemporary sensibility. It's a tribute to Adams' nimble wit that the three-century leap always amuses, never jars. She has also done a brilliant job inserting imaginative "what ifs" into the sketchy details available concerning Behn's colorful career.

We first find the aspiring scribe (Maggie Siff, exuding intelligent resolve) reduced to the genteel indignity of debtors' prison: her employer, the exiled King Charles II, has neglected to pay for her services as a spy overseas. Even as she declares her intention to write her way out of penury, the arrival of a swashbuckling masked visitor (Andy Paris in the first of several brilliantly discharged quick-change roles) sets in motion a romantic intrigue that will eventually encompass not only several cross-pairings among famous figures of the day but a regicidal plot that puts Aphra's loyalties to the test.

You need know nothing of the convoluted political history involved to enjoy the playful polyamorous encounters that ensue. Kelly Hutchinson, having already charmingly served on intro duty and growled her way through the part of a truculent jailer, resurfaces as the notorious Restoration leading lady Nell Gwynne. Here, she's portrayed as a gamine given to cross-dressing (Andrea Lauer's era-bridging costume gives her a Carnaby-style newsboy cap) and an enthusiastic participant in whatever fun and games should happen to present themselves.

Your mind may take a little hike as Aphra gives rein to an impulse to deliver a brief blank-verse paean to her vision of a Golden Age, a pastoral paradise in which free love supplants war and strife -- but give the visionary her due. Soon enough, the farcical doors -- both bedroom and armoire -- will be popping again.

Paris will then turn up, dressed like a strawberry cupcake, for a comic tour de force as real-life theatrical impresario Lady Davenant, whose detestation of composite titles involving the conjunction "or" gives the play its name. At breakneck speed, she offers Aphra further advice that rates right up there with Hamlet's adjurations to the Players: "Mustn't keep actors waiting around without the play, They'll start to drink then it's quarrels and misbehaving behind the scenery . . . utter utter chaos darling, never leave actors with nothing to do." It's an admonition that Adams and this troupe have clearly taken to heart.