Before Gaga, There Was Aphra: “Or,” Liz Duffy Adams’ Bisexual Bombshell.
Before Gaga, There Was Aphra: Or, Liz Duffy Adams’ Bisexual Bombshell (Review)
For more than a century, scholars, activists, and playwrights have found personal, political, and literary inspiration in writings by and about Oscar Wilde, catapulting the 19th century Anglo-Irish author to mythic status as an icon for the contemporary gay movement. The 17th century authoress Aphra Behn is now experiencing something akin to Wilde. Although Virginia Woolf praised Behn in A Room of One’s Own (1929), Behn’s resuscitation did not begin in earnest until feminist literary scholars in the 1970’s started making her the subject of an evermounting number of articles and monographs.
In more recent years, the cult of Behn has begun seeping from academia into popular culture. And just as Wilde shared his ascent within 1980’s popular (sub)culture with the likes of gender benders, such as Boy George, David Bowie, and Prince, so Aphra reemerges alongside the likes of the ambisexterous Kate Perry, Fergie, and Lady Gaga. In fact, I’m not sure who loved masks and vizards more, Behn’s heroines or Gaga.
The powerful and provocative nature of what we do know about Behn –she was a political spy, a professional playwright, and a bisexual–coupled with the mystery and allure of what remains unknown about her, have contributed to her contemporary status as a feminist and LGBT icon for the gender-conscious as well as a prime source of dramatic fodder for playwrights.
In her latest play, Or, Liz Duffy Adams depicts the enigmatic Aphra, reveling in, rather than reviling, the ostensible contradictions the woman espoused in her work and embodied in her life. As actress and courtesan Nell Gwynne (Kelly Hutchinson) notes in the prologue, so much in life hinges on the play’s title word, ‘or’ (gay or straight and so on), yet she asserts, “those or’s divide less than they seemingly link.” The play returns to this idea in the final scene, in which the cast of three–Aphra, Nell, and Charles II–dressed in their bed clothes, offer up rhymed musings that hinge on this choice conjunction, before exiting hand in hand for another three-way tryst: the message is not a matter of either/or, but a boundless all of the above.
Director Wendy McClellan does a fine job of keeping the actors moving effectively, especially Kelly Hutchinson (Nell) and Andy Paris (Charles II), who perform multiple parts beyond Nell and Charles respectively, making the play every bit as fast-paced and farcical as Behn’s own plays. As Aphra Behn, Maggie Siff delivers a seamless, charming performance that shows the 17th century playwright as crafty, yet conscientious, torn between her professional ambition and her sexual attraction to her patron Charles and her player Nell. Comic high points were Hutchinson’s doubling as Aphra’s homely maid Maria and Paris’s drag portrayal of Lady Davenant, wife of William Davenant, the manager of the Duke’s Company. (In the 1660’s the London theatre scene was a duopoly; the King’s Company, run by Thomas Killigrew, was the other.) Conceptually, in Or, Adams tries to forge a connection between the 1660’s and the 1960’s–indeed both eras are noted for their political and sexual decadence– but while the analogy is compelling, it is not sufficiently integrated into the script or the staging of this production, and as a result the 60’s allusions (from Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” playing before curtain call to the psychodelic sun upstage in the final scene) end up appearing like a gimmick or afterthought. However, aside from this component, the play itself is entertaining and intelligent.
Or, finished its run last week at the Julia Miles Theater in NYC. This is not Adams’ first play about Behn; her one act play Aphra in Antwerp was produced in 2001 at Women’s Project. For a little more insight into Adams’ interest in Behn, check out playwright Adam Szymkowicz’s 10/19/09 interview with her on his blog.