frivolity in 1660

Harlequin Productions’ Restoration comedy delights in modern era by celebrating the past

Contributing writerJanuary 25, 2013 

freedom, Harlequin Productions’ “Or,” is a comedy set during the restoration of King Charles II to the throne of the British Empire in 1660.

But though it is populated with such historical figures as Aphra Behn, the first woman to become a professional playwright, and the king himself, the play is far from a period piece.

Rather, Liz Duffy Adams’ play is thoroughly modern in both provenance (it premiered in 2009) and subject matter.

“This is a metaphor for right now,” said Scot Whitney, who’s directing the show, which is opening this weekend. “The playwright has used this period to pull the mirror up to our own time in a very rambunctious Restoration comedy style.

“This was written after Obama had been elected the first time,” he added. “Nell Gwynne has a wonderful line: ‘The Puritans have had their chance. Now it’s our turn to create a new golden era.’ ”

Whitney also sees parallels with the widespread mistrust of Muslims merely because of their religion. In the 17th century, similar sentiments about Catholics were common in England.

Coincidentally, the play even reflects Washington’s recent legalization of same-sex marriage and marijuana. In the play, tobacco is referred to as “weed.” Also, Behn has a relationship with Gwynne as well as with the king, one of the liberties the play takes with the characters.

“She has a wonderful speech about pleasure,” Whitney said. “ ‘We have this gift of pleasure. If two consenting people can add to the joy in the universe for even an hour, I consider that a virtue, not a vice.’ ”

The play also includes lots of gender mixing in the spirit of the era, when women were allowed to appear on stage for the first time.

The play has a cast of three, with Kate Kraay as Behn and Amy Shephard (last seen in “A Christmas Survival Guide”) and James Weidman playing multiple roles, including cross-gender ones.

Shephard, for example, plays Gwynne, a grumpy Scottish maid and a jailer.

“And Nell Gwynne was an actress who played boys and played women,” Whitney added. “The men mistake Nell for a boy at first.”

Those changing identities — along with plenty of romance — are part of the Restoration style, and playwright Adams earned critical praise for her ability to emulate the style effectively.

“Her language has a natural period flavor and a formidable wit; her characters possess the spark of fully animated spirits; and she weaves into her story both biographical detail and cultural context with grace,” New York Times critic Charles Isherwood wrote in a review of the 2009 premiere production. “More remarkably, the play succeeds on its own terms as a potted pastiche of Restoration comedy.”

“I love classical acting styles,” Whitney said, “and the Restoration period was just such fun, with a swashbuckling energy. There are lots of quick changes and doors opening and closing and actors going out as one person and coming back as another.

“It’s really a fun play.” ‘Or,’

What: Liz Duffy Adams’ neo-Restoration comedy, about the first woman to be a professional playwright, reveals just how similar the 1660s were to our time. (The comma is part of the title.)

When: 8 tonight and Saturday plus Wednesday-Feb. 2, Feb. 7-9 and Feb. 14-16; 2 p.m. Sunday plus Feb. 3 and 10

Where: State Theater, 202 Fourth Ave. E., Olympia

Tickets: $31 adults, $28 seniors and military, $20 students; pay what you can Wednesday; for the Feb. 14 show, the “Sweetheart Package” offers two tickets, drinks and chocolate for $50.

Information: 360-786-0151, harlequinproductions.org

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