Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Off the Wall's 'Or,' Serves Up Funny Holiday Treat

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Off the Wall's 'Or,' Serves Up Funny Holiday Treat

Article excerpt

The heroine of Liz Duffy Adams' comic "Or," (the comma is part of the title) is a plucky sort, a determined author with a sideline in spying and hanky-panky. She is the delectable heart of a quasi- historical, language-drenched farce, which I count among the more unlikely gifts of this holiday season.

This heroine is a real person, Aphra Behn (1640-89), a writer recovered in recent decades from the attic of literary history. She is claimed to be the first professional woman playwright, most famously heralded by Virginia Woolf, who said she "earned [women] the right to speak their minds."

Ms. Behn's was a resourceful life but hard, as her impoverished death at 49 suggests. But starting with the 1660 collapse of the Puritan Parliament, restoration of the Stuart monarchy and reopening of the London theaters, she wrote a great deal, including something like 19 plays, one of which, "The Rover," has entered the modern repertoire.

However "Or," (there's that comma again) is no bio-drama but largely make-believe, even though real historical figures make up its characters.

Consider that minimalist title. Most clearly, it refers to the hinges of some 17th- and 18th-century play titles, like "Twelfth Night or, What You Will" or "The Man of Mode, or, Sir Fopling Flutter." So "or" invites us to imagine what the alternative titles of this play might be, because it is several kinds whipped up into a farce.

But "or" also suggests the ambiguity of the chief character. She is a bit of a chameleon, as the real Aphra had to be, considering the enmity she aroused just by daring to be a professional writer. Ms. Adams also imagines her Aphra in sexual carryings-on with Nell Gwynne and King Charles II, historical figures with active libidos: "Or," indeed.

Further dichotomies ("actress or whore," "trash or art," "now or then") are suggested in the rhyming prologue. Your ear may be too busy tuning in to the blank verse to hear them, but they are a perfect setup for farce, keeping those alternative doors opening and closing at a furious pace.

All this said, the play's chief attraction is neither plot, character (n)or historical peep-show, but cavorting language. …

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