Sunday, November 15, 2009

Or, (Women's Project)

Women's Project
November 11, 2009
Liz Duffy Adams (playwright)
Wendy McClellan (director)

The ebullient Or, (comma included) is a period drama, a sex farce, a spy thriller, a backstage comedy, even a bit of a feminist burlesque. That Or, can be so many things without spinning apart speaks to the strength of its 17th-century protagonist, Aphra Behn. The ex-spy was the first Englishwoman to make an independent living as a poet. So playwright Liz Duffy Adams dreams up a pivotal night in which Behn must compose her first play while handling two lovers (one of each sex) as well as a former contact with intel on a plot against England.

Adams plainly adores her heroine. Lucky she's got Maggie Siff as her indomitable lead. Siff's got perfect control over her pale face, strong jaw, and hard brow, which give silent expression to every thought. She's also a generous actor, listening visibly to her scene partners. Together, Adams and Siff give us a woman who is cool, intelligent, and devoted to her work—she never forgets herself even during lovemaking. As an agent too, she's a consummate playwright, appraising her contact's motivation and assessing the holes in his plot like she's his dramaturg.

The only problem is, Adams' exuberance threatens to derail her own dramaturgy. She draws a comparison between the 1660s and 1960s, but stretches it too far sometimes and finally drops it altogether. The confusion of genres means director Wendy McClellan must switch tones abruptly, and she doesn't always finesse it. But the biggest problem is that Behn doesn't actually do much except write, leaving other characters to do her dirty work. Uncharacteristically, she dithers over betraying her contact, and the plot demands she must literally sacrifice her spycraft for her art. Anyhow, Adams' strength is her dialogue: she deploys subtext deftly, exploring the 17th-century fondness for double-meaning in a lyrically modern idiom.

Adams and Siff's vivacious Behn so dominates Or, that it's easy to forget the rest of the show. A pair of actors play a dozen extra roles, complete with quick-changes—Kelly Hutchinson's turn as Nell Gwynn, a sort of 17th-century Marianne Faithful, is especially delightful. The design elements cohere beautifully, with a set and costumes just sumptuous enough, their bright colors underscored by deft lighting and adding to the high spirit. Or, is a juicy, overstuffed delight, a rococo concoction of sex, spies, and stagecraft.


Or, plays at the Women's Project (424 West 55th Street, betw. Ninth & Tenth Ave.), closing on December 13.

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