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September 7, 2011

Rep Stage opens season with a romp through the Restoration

It seems unlikely that many Americans are well up on the Restoration period in England.

We know something of the Puritans who had their heyday before that period, primarily because of their legacy on these shores (a legacy that seems to rise up again with every few election cycles).

But we know little, I suspect, of Charles II, let alone Aphra Behn, the first woman in England to make a living from poetry and plays.

Those historical figures (or, at least, approximations) and some heated issues from the Restoration get a work out in "Or," a recent play by Liz Duffy Adams that serves as the 19th season-opener for Rep Stage.

Part of the fun comes from the way Adams weaves the 1960s into that 1660s milieu, with assorted political, economic and, especially, sexual references that have a way of connecting the two eras. There are some obvious connections to the early 2000s as well.

In an intermission-less stretch of 90 minutes, the play largely succeeds in providing context and fleshing out characters, although it would be nice to get more of a sense of Behn's theatrical career (the plot concerns her steps toward that career). The story is deliverered in between bursts of farce -- lots of doors opening and closing, confused identities, sudden plot twists.

Whether all the details packed into the work have a ring of truth is beside the point. For all of the comedy in the piece, it is, at heart ...

about the color and power of language, the justice of gender equality, and the intriguing possibilities inherent in what used to be called free love.

"Or" doesn't always crackle. The opening scene, set in a debtor's prison, where Aphra spent some time after spying on behalf of Charles, takes too long to percolate. Some of the subsequent humor has a forced quality.

And I hate to sound even remotely puritanical, but Adams over-salts the script with profanity, a practice that also takes on the air of contrivance after a while.

Still, the cleverness and entertainment in the material hold rewards, which find a mostly satisfying outlet in the Rep Stage production, directed at a more or less propulsive pace by Michael Stebbins. (Performances run through Sept. 18.)

Charlotte Cohn, as Aphra, tends to stay on low burner. There's something curiously passive much of the time in her performance; more vitality and expressive nuance would help explain why the character left such an imprint.

Jason Odell Williams hits the mark more winningly in a triple-role assignment. He's droll as Charles; explosive as William Scott, a spy and possible revolutionary who complicates matters; and very funny as Lady Davenant, a theater producer eager for a stage-worthy "comi-tragedy" from the pen of Aphra.

Lady Davenant gets the most virtuosic speech in Adams' play, and Williams delivers the breathless lines with bravura to spare.

Christine Demuth rounds out the cast playing another three characters. She does the most effective scenery-chewing as Nell Gwynne, the celebrated actress of the day who is ready and willing to pursue just about any dalliance.

James Fouchard's effective set design is speckled with peace symbols, daisies and other allusions to the Age of Aquarius. Splashes of music, including suggestions of the Beatles and Barry White, pop up in wry fashion. Melanie Clark's fanciful costumes complete the staging's visual flair.


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:04 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens, Rep Stage

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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