(From left, Lara Mielcarek as Aphra Behn and Natalie Green as Nell Gywnne)
Aprha Behn is one of the more fascinating characters in English literature: a 17th century British writer who became the first woman to make a living with her talented pen. As a playwright and poet, and with a side job as a spy for King Charles II, she crashed through many gender and sexual barricades of the time.
The real story of Behn is rather submerged in the play by Liz Duffy Adams awkwardly titled Or,--yes, the title includes the comma—which turns the story of this remarkable woman into a sex farce with a dollop of espionage intrigue. While this may not be entirely satisfying for some scholars, the show is loaded with rich wordplay, some biographical elements, and modern language suffused with a Restoration comedy flavor. All in all, it’s a wonderful 90-minute door-slamming romp, performed with pleasing precision by the Dobama cast.
If there is a serious side to the play, it is the idea of two strong women, Behn and the actress Nell Gywnne (with whom Behn becomes amorously entwined), who are carving out independent careers in the 1660s. Indeed, there are repeated comparisons made to connect that era to the decade three centuries later when women’s rights and a more modern sexual revolution were taking place. Happily these parallels, often manufactured or glib, don’t detract from the energy of the writing or from this delightful performance under the direction of Shannon Sindelar.
As Behn, Lara Mielcarek embodies Behn with a quick wit and a powerful stage presence, tweaking the libidos of both King Charles and Nell with surpassing ease. Adams’ words spill out of Mielcarek effortlessly as Behn tries to finish a play she’s writing while trying to diddle with Nell, fend off the King’s advances, deal with a former lover, and keep her theater manager happy. Those convoluted tasks nicely encapsulate Behn’s tumultuous and no doubt remarkably fascinating life.
Playwright Adams weaves these activities together with plenty of laughs as the other two actors, Geoff Knox and Natalie Green, take on multiple roles ducking in and out of rooms and a large armoire. Knox is suitably regal and randy as the King, then dons drag to play the theater manager Lady Davenant in a priceless bit of high-speed drollery.
As Nell, Green is a fetchingly boyish gal whose rough manners and foul language seem to beguile Behn, leading to their lip locks. Green also plays the sharp-tongued woman who runs the house where all this happens.
Behn was a woman full of amazing contradictions, and the title of this piece plays off a popular title format of the Restoration period (“Oroonoko, Or, The Royal Slave” was one of her more famous works). In this case, the “or” could refer to so many things in regards to Behn: writer or spy, libertine or defender of the status quo (she was no fan of democracy), feminist or traditionalist, gay or straight. Indeed, she was all of these things.
While Or, leaves many of the contradictions unaddressed, the play offers a fast-paced, madcap ride through one fantastical day in the life of a real woman we all should get to know better.
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Through October 4 at Dobama Theatre, 2340 Lee Road, Cleveland Heights, 216-932-3396.