Dobama's 'Or,' about first female playwright is witty, lush, playful

CLEVELAND HEIGHTS - It's rare to come across a sex farce that brims with intelligence and eloquence while being relevant.

To find such a play - one full of gorgeous, poetic, smart language, unbridled joy, celebration and succulent sexuality -- one need look no further than Dobama Theatre, where the historical play/sex farce "Or," is kicking off the company's 2015-2016 season through Oct. 4 in a delightful, elegant, funny production.

Dobama's rendition is one that, like the play itself, brings history to life in a fun way that not even the most enthusiastic, wide-eyed professor can.

Accolade-winning playwright Liz Duffy Adams isn't content to merely impart a history lesson, but to bring the past vibrantly alive through spirited, indomitable characters such as the protagonist.

She is one Aphra Behn, and if you're female and have experienced success as a writer, you'd be wise to heed these words of renown English writer Virginia Woolf: "All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn, which is most scandalously but rather appropriately, in Westminster Abbey, for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds."

Behn (1640-1689) is widely considered the first female playwright. She penned plays stylistically similar to "Or,".

It's set during the Restoration Period, a time in English history during which arts advocate King Charles II was restored to the throne following a period that began after Puritan Oliver Cromwell overthrew the king, shut down theaters and forbade entertainment. The Restoration Period was marked by plays full of sex and variety, unleashing feelings and emotions that had built up during the Puritan rule.

"Or," based loosely on true events, mostly takes place during one night in the life of Behn, who's also a spy for Charles and a poetess.
.
Behn and the other characters' charisma and positive attitude mirror that of the many advocates who fearlessly advocated for equal rights for same sex couples as the supreme court weighed same sex marriage.

The characters' playful and upbeat personalities also appropriately convey a new era -- one that saw the Puritans rule cease and the subsequent restoration.

If the return of freedom of expression brightened previously darkened days, the emergence of the first female writer tacked on a supernova quality to that light.

"Or," spans from 1666-1670 in London, and from its beginning, theatrical entertainment may be about to emerge from the shackles of censorship, but Behn hasn't been liberated from a debtors' prison.

Before the play begins, she'd been on a disastrous overseas mission as a spy for King Charles II and cannot pay off her debts to be set free.

But Charles (a short, charming, loveable, humble Geoff Knox, with curly, long hair) comes to the rescue.

Free love and cross dressing then reign against the backdrop of an unspecified, just-completed drawn-out war. If the 1600s and the 1960s look similar, well, it goes to show that even two time periods so far apart share similarities. Their differences "divide less than they subtly link," to borrow text from the play's opening monologue.

But all is not serene and celebratory after Behn's release.

Double agent William Scot (a desperate Knox, who plays all the male roles) is hiding out, fearing execution if he's convicted of treason. Meanwhile, some people might be plotting to assassinate the king. And actress Nell Gwynne (a playful Natalie Green) can't stop admiring and even kissing Behn. Can the latter win Scot a pardon, save the king's life and meet the deadline to hand her first play to aristocrat Lady Davenant? (Green, who plays all the women except Behn.)

It all adds up to an intriguing afternoon or evening of theater.

Green is particularly admirable as the aristocrat, who talks incessantly without breathing for a page and halves of two others. Remarkably, the actress never flubs a line, sounding as natural as every-day conversation.

As embodied by Lara Mielcarek, it's easy to root for her winning, multi-faceted Behn. She conveys, at the right times, assertiveness, charm, indomitability, a sense of urgency and sensuality.

Behn has a lot on her hands after leaving the debtors' prison. The circumstances swirling around her as she struggles to finish her play could symbolize a dizzying, rocky start to the career of the world's first female playwright, who went on to become prolific. But whenever did someone's first attempt at something go off without at least some turbulence?

With the theatrical community's continuing emphasis on featuring female playwrights, it feels right that Dobama has chosen to stage this play.

And they're staging it well.

Director Shannon Sindelar brings out the playfulness in the script. He, for example, has Green, as Gwynne, crawl on all fours as though she were a dog in a rush of rambunctiousness. Sindelar's smart staging also includes having Green's Gwynne stand on a couch while proclaiming, triumphantly, that women can be whatever they wish.

Sindelar has coaxed natural performances from the performers, in which they're not only convincing but handle Adams' poetry with ease and flair.

Scenic designer Ben Needham's lush, period, spacious set serves as the main playing space, depicting a rented parlor. The debtors' prison is merely suggested by a table and darker lighting That's just fine; live theater requires audiences' imagination more so than film. The jailer (Green) could be more stern and commanding, however.

Marcus Dana's lighting becomes brighter as the mood shifts to upbeat. The lighting also becomes darker during intimate, romantic scenes.

As befitting a Restoration comedy, the sex flows freely and the celebratory mood heightens as the arts-loving king is restored.

We, as a society, need such arts advocates.

IF YOU GO:

WHAT: "Or,"

WHEN: Through Oct. 4. Performance times are 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays and 2:30 p.m. Sundays.

WHERE: 2340 Lee Road, Cleveland Heights

HOW MUCH: $25-$28. Senior and student discounts are available. Call 216-932-3396 or visit www.dobama.org.