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Surprising OR, at Dobama

Roy Berko

(Member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle)

Dobama Theatre’s mission statement indicates that it is its purpose to “premiere the best contemporary plays by established or emerging playwrights.”  Why, then, are they opening their 2015-16 season with a play set in 1666-1670?

According to Nathan Motta, the theatre’s Artistic Director, OR, “is intrinsically intelligent, sumptuously sensual, persistently playful, full of frivolity, and is chock-full of surprises.”  That explanation, even though enticing, doesn’t answer the era question.  He goes on to say in the program, “It’s relevant.  This play is thought-provoking and addresses themes and issues that are as true today as they were in the 1660’s or the 1960’s.” “And,” he added in his pre-curtain opening remarks, “definitely today.”

The play does include some lesbian acts and free love content, but even so, there seems to be a stretch of the Dobama definition.  That said, the play is inventive, playful and funny.  It is cleverly written by American playwright, Liz Duffy Adams.   Using Restoration period language mixed with contemporary text provides there are enough twists and turns in the plot to keep the audience guessing about the outcome.

Starting out as a drama, the script nicely morphs into comedy and then stretches into farce, complete with slamming doors, mistaken identities, sexual innuendoes, cross-dressing, and overblown characters and characterizations.

Duffy Adams received the “Women of Achievement Award” from the Women’s Project Theater, as well as being a recipient of the Lilly Award, which recognizes outstanding work of women in the American Theater.

The story centers on some real people, Aphra Behn, a former British spy and the woman credited with being the first female playwright in the Western world, Nell Gwynne, a famous actress of her day, King Charles II, who ruled over the restoration era which marked the end of the republican/Cromwellian rule of England, and Will Scott, a double agent who may or may not have been Behn’s lover and a conductor of a plot to kill Charles II.

Whether any or all of the actions of the play really took place is questionable, so this is not a history play, but probably historification.

Alphra wants to get out of the spy business and become a playwright.  She might succeed if she can finish the poetic play she is writing.  Unfortunately, she is constantly interrupted.  King Charles wants to make love with her.   So too does Nell Gwynne.  William Scott shows up, hiding out from Charles’s soldiers.

Questions arise:  Will Alphra finish the play?  Will Scott succeed in his plot against Charles?  Will Gwynne find true love with Charles, Alphra or both?  Who is the hyper-hysterical “woman” who appears to demand the play be finished immediately?  What role does Aphra’s maid have in bringing the plot to some sort of conclusion?

It might help the viewer to have some knowledge of the era, and the role of Cromwell, Charles’ pledge to the king of France that allowed him to regain the English thrown, and the role of the church at the time, but in the end, what Adams presents isn’t intended to teach a history lesson, but to entertain.

The Dobama cast, under the adept direction of Shannon Sindelar, does a nice job of keeping the intermissionless, ninety-minute comic romp moving smoothly along.  The farce works adequately well.  The double and triple identities achieved with some acceptable costume changes, aided by a cabinet which makes for quick wig and costume changes, and a little bit of forgiveness on the part of the viewers,  adds up to some belly laughing fun.

The beautiful Lara Mielcarek creates the right image as Aphra Behn.  She nicely textures the role, making her slight overdramatic performance an integral part of the playwright’s bigger than life image.

Natalie Green is adorable as the uninhibited Nell Gwynne, the actress, in an era when actresses were less than accepted members of society.  No acting here.  She is Nell Gwynne.  She also does a fun take on portraying Aphra’s stooped, cantankerous housekeeper.

Geoff Knox, who not only plays Charles, but William Scott, steals the show with his cross-dressing portrayal of the unnamed woman who is going to produce Aphra’s show.  His accurate machine gun delivery of a five-minute soliloquy, done without breathing, resulted in an ear-shattering round of applause as “she” made her exit.

Ben Needham’s plush set design generally worked well.  There were some effects which appeared to be more affect then effect, with fading of the lighting instruments at times when there seems to be no need.  Some of the sounds and music didn’t develop the mood, and, at times, drowned out the performers.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: OR, is an amusing and revealing historification take on the Western world’s first recognized woman playwright, and her supposed relationships with Charles II, the King of England, and Nell Gwynn, one of the most famous actresses of her time.  The Dobama production is long on farce and fine acting!  It makes for a entertaining evening of theatre. 

OR, runs through October 4, 2015 at Dobama Theatre.  Call 216-932-3396 or for tickets.

Dobama’s next production is Tanya Barfield’s THE CALL, October 25-November 15, 2015.