Sunday, December 21, 2014

Convergence of Talent Makes "Or," Something Very Special

Cast of "Or" Ethan Hova, Erika Cuenca, Robin Abramson Photo Credit: Off the Wall Theater

How lucky for Carnegie’s Off the Wall Theater that it managed (again) to combine the right elements to make for an exceptional theatrical experience. "Or," like the Steelers of late, is a winning team  made up of playwright Liz Duffy Adams, a cast of three superb actors and a gifted director, John Shepard, who wowed local audiences this summer with his directorial skills in Quantum Theatre’s production of "Tamara."
"Or" takes a look at the 17th century playwright, Aphra Behn, credited as one of the first professional woman writers in England and someone who made important contributions to the development of the English novel. The play opens in a 1666 debtor’s prison in London, where Behn finds herself locked away and destitute.
Quill pen in hand, she implores King Charles II (after a prologue meant to explain the title of the play among other things) to pay her for her services as a spy in the service of the crown. Charles has just regained the throne following Cromwell’s draconian dictatorship, and the Restoration promises a relaxation of Puritan strictures that included the reopening of the theaters which kindles Behn’s desire to write successful plays.
Off the Wall’s rather modest set is a stark contrast to the trio of regal or notorious and colorful personalities that form the core of Or,’s" action, namely Charles II himself, the celebrated actress with polymorphous perverse tendencies, Nell Gwynne, and Behn, the aspirating playwright.
Witty and cerebral, the dialogue also has its fair share of ribald comedy that explores all sorts of sexual orientations when it’s not poking around in more serious matters like affairs of state, plots to assassinate the king and 17th century cultural and social norms.
With four doors to come in and go out at the back of the stage (plus two more on an armoire that plays a pivotal role), the scene is set for farce, which the playwright does exploits - but not to excess.
As Behn, Erica Cuenca steadfastly tries to finish a play to meet the deadline set by a wealthy patron, all the while juggling a hodgepodge of amorous advances initiated by the king, an ex-lover and even the libidinous Nell Gwynn. Cuenca’s performance nicely balances her character’s inherent intelligence with her voluptuous charisma and ambitious maneuverings to stay in the good graces of both the king and her theatrical benefactor - all the while trying to keep control over her feisty and somewhat daft maid and reprobate ex-lover.
It falls on Robin Abramson to play multiple roles that include Gwynne, the maid and Lady Davenant, a theater impresario and patron. Abramson enlivens the play with her electric humor, dashing around in various costumes and taking the secondary characters to hilarious heights.
Ethan Hova also does double duty, making the changes from Charles II to William Scot, Behn’s former lover, and back with the donning of a different wig, transforming from king to peon and back with remarkable credibility.
"Or," will probably be one of the last plays I’ll see in 2014, but it’s also one of the best I’ve witnessed this entire year.
"Or," is at Off the Wall Theater, 25 W. Main Street in Carnegie through Jan. 10. Phone 724-873-3576 for reservations.

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