The Hangar Theatre opens its 45th season with Liz Duffy Adams’s rollicking comedy, as directed by Morgan Gould: “Or, What She Will.” If the double title (an earlier convention that the play itself mocks) has a whiff of Shakespeare to it, your guess is close––by a half century. Not set in Renaissance England but in the post-Puritan, post-regicide era, this work is a modernized Restoration comedy, bold and bawdy.
Adams has previously reimagined history, and here the main character is the celebrated Aphra Behn (also known as Astrea, or in her side career as spy 160). Behn (1640-1689) was not the first English woman playwright but rather the first to ply her trade professionally; she lived by her pen. A poet and novelist as well as playwright, Behn wrote for the stage under the restored King Charles II, who re-opened the theatres and allowed women onstage as actors.
If you’re not up on your British history, it’s helpful before the show starts to take a quick look at the informative display at the back of the Hangar lobby. Regardless, a few minutes into the action, you’ll get the gist of the context.
While true to broad historical outlines, Adams plays fast and loose with some details for the sake of the plot. Here, Behn is kept by Charles as a writer, an almost-mistress (he had quite a few), and she romances the streetwise actress Nell Gwynne, toast of London, then inadvertently throws her and the king together. (Gwynne actually was a long favorite of Charles, whom he provided for in his will.)
Reflecting Restoration farce, there’s a lot of secrecy, masked identities, hiding in closets and slamming of doors, as well as generous helpings of sex and sauciness. The plot is complicated by the return of Aphra’s previous lover, the ostracized double agent William Scot, who’s trying to manipulate Aphra to help him get his lands back.
A sturdy set is needed to sustain all the rapid to and fro, and Luciana Stecconi provides Aphra’s elegant, simple study with solid doors. (The characters complain the oak’s so thick you can’t eavesdrop successfully through it.) There’s also dark green wallpaper embossed with giant red roses, providing a rich period feel. But the whimsical touch of framed images of Warhol’s Marilyn, Botticelli’s Venus, and Queen Elizabeth II makes no discernable, consistent point.
Matt Richard’s lighting and Josh Maywood’s sound effectively support the action, while Suzanne Chesney’s opulent 17th-century costumes risk stealing the show: yards of fabric and lace, absurd headgear, and delicious frippery that’s all the more impressive because of the rapid costume changes demanded of the two actors who play multiple roles.
Ashley N. Hildreth’s Nell loves trouser roles and so cross-dresses as a stylish courtier, but she also morphs into Aphra’s longtime servant Maria, a stooped crone with bad teeth. Though spirited, both roles are a bit too broadly played, and her British accent is sometimes too thick to follow.
Austin Jones has the joy and misery of playing both the randy but regal Charles I and the feckless traitor William Scot. He’s wildly amusing at every moment, most especially as the overstuffed, overbearing Duke’s Company manager Lady Davenant in one long, breathless speech––a comical tour de force. In addition to his versatile acting, Jones gets a lot of mileage from his moustache alone, which refuses to stay affixed; he removes it, replaces it, and visible stagehands even supply him with a moustache on a stick.
Bits of self-conscious theatrical gestures like this, as well as occasional modern slang and swearing, contribute to the playfulness. The temporal fusion works because Emily Kunkel’s Aphra, at the squall’s center, is so splendidly persuasive. (Curiously, Kunkel rather resembles Aphra as seen in paintings.)
Kunkel epitomizes resourcefulness and wit; Adams’ clever rhymed couplets roll trippingly off her tongue; her diction is exquisite. Her Aphra Behn is a liberated libertine, a working woman with class: independent, free-loving, and dedicated to her craft.
On opening night, the pace slowed occasionally in the show’s first third before the action ratchets up. But once it does, you’re borne aloft in the bedlam––and might not even notice when the satire touches our own times.
Barbara Adams, a regional theatre and arts writer, teaches writing at Ithaca College.
“Or, What She Will,” by Liz Duffy Adams, directed by Morgan Gould, with Emily Kunkel, Ashley N. Hildreth, and Austin Jones. At the Hangar Theatre, through June 22. Tickets at 607-273-2787 or HangarTheatre.org.