Or, the typographically challenged recent play about Aphra Behn by Liz Duffy Adams, is the Elements Theatre Collective’s latest guerilla contribution to the city’s burgeoning independent drama scene. There’s certainly enough fuel for onstage excitement in this historical material. Aphra Behn was a 17th-century Englishwoman who, in addition to being a successful playwright and novelist, also managed to live in a cosmopolitan, Bohemian style while secretly acting as an international spy in service to King Charles II’s Restoration Tory party. In other words, Behn was more than just a groundbreaking woman writer — she was also a real-life action hero and possibly something of a libertine, as well.
As a writer, Behn was famously name-checked in the early part of the 20th century by no less a feminist icon than Virginia Woolf, but it wasn’t until the 1970s that she emerged as a darling of the women’s studies movement. Behn filled her novel Oroonoko, about a rebel African prince who’s enslaved and transported to Surinam, with complex colonial power dynamics, vicious betrayals, and undying passions — qualities that have proved even more appealing to academic readers today than they were to Behn’s 17th-century contemporaries.
In this play, three actors play a total of seven characters, with Elements founder Emily Jewell in the single part of Behn and Michael Bernard and Stephanie Farnum each taking multiple roles as such historical figures as Charles II and the actress Nell Gwynne. Perhaps the most distinctive feature of Adams’s script is the nuanced way that it incorporates a second, mostly implied context — the social and sexual liberation movements of the 1960s. The action takes place in the course of a single night, as Behn alternately seduces and fends off a variety of suitors, including not only the king but also the seriously infatuated Gwynne, the most renowned actress of her time. And, since she’s a writer, Behn deals with all this while on deadline.
Such contemporary revisions of history are notoriously difficult to pull off. With the notable exception of Tom Stoppard, there are few modern playwrights who have succeeded in this regard consistently. The word on this particular play, however, is quite good. In a New York Times review of Or,’s 2009 production at the Julia Miles Theater, critic Charles Isherwood wrote that her “language has a natural period flavor and a formidable wit; her characters possess the spark of fully animated spirits; and she weaves into her story both biographical detail and cultural context with grace.”
For Santa Barbara’s Elements Theatre Collective, Or, represents the addition of a new layer in the fabric of its ambitious project to create guerilla or “pop-up” theater pieces with all the gravity and craftsmanship of traditional main-stage productions. With this show, the Collective has taken on the challenge of donning the appropriate period costumes of Miller James; it has also engaged a professional voice coach, Michael Morgan, to help with the all-important accents. Jewell’s excitement about the show became apparent when she told me with a big smile, “Aphra Behn is such a beast of a character.” By way of illustration, the list of Behn’s antics in Or, include snatching away a man’s gun and holding it to his head, along with what Jewell describes as her “first stage kiss with a girl.”
For director Sara Rademacher, this production, which will be performed eight more times in this run at various locations (including Java Station and the Public Library’s Faulkner Gallery), extends an idealistic vision for community theater that involves free performances, innovative plays, and top area talent. Describing the show as “more lighthearted than Gruesome Playground Injuries,” the company’s last effort, Rademacher praised her dramaturg, Mary Plant-Thomas, for helping lead her and the cast through the intricacies of the subject’s historical context. In a world dominated by views of revolution that developed after the Enlightenment, it can be difficult to recapture the nuances of the dispute between the Tory Cavaliers and their Puritanical opponents, the Roundheads, but Rademacher assured me that the script does an excellent job of explaining the Restoration. With Jewell at the center, and the comic energies of Michael Bernard and Stephanie Farnum revolving around her in a series of lightning-fast costume changes, this should prove to be an exceptional night of laughter and suspense. Historical figures don’t come much juicier than Aphra Behn — she leaps out of the 1660s like a superhero from a feminist comic book — and this show promises to provide a dramatic introduction to her action-packed life.
Or, will be at various locations Thursday, January 31-Sunday, February 10. All performances are free, but reservations are required. To see the full list of venues and to make a reservation, visit elementstheatrecollective.com.