Review: ‘Or,’ by Theatre Prometheus at Capital Hill Arts Workshop

A promising play about a polyamorous playwright is not a laughing matter.

Liz Duffy Adams’s play Or,—which premiered in 2009 at the Women’s Project in New York—is a deliciously literate feminist farce. A radical mashup of dichotomies (among them straight and gay, male and female), it centers on Aphra Behn, the first woman playwright to earn a living by her pen. Ahistorically and hysterically, it blends Behn’s Restoration-era polyamory with 1960s-style sexual liberation. As such the script could not have been a more promising programming choice for the accomplished female-centric and queer-identified collaborative company Theatre Prometheus.

Peter Mikhail (CharlesII), Dina Soltan (Aphra Behn), and Zoe Walpole (Nell Gwynne) in ‘Or,’ Photo by Patrick Landes.

The set as tucked into the Capital Hill Arts Workshop blackbox looked charming. The play takes place in the parlor and study of Behn’s London flat, and Scenic Designer R. Scott Hengen has styled it prettily with swaths of pastel print fabric draped everywhere and lit votive candles all about. Lighting Designer Hailey LaRoe has strung tiny white lights overhead the audience and will in due time brightly heighten peak moments. Lest we think we’re in for a stuffy drawing room drama, there are two period-ish portraits upstage that bear a winking resemblance to Jimmy Hendrix and Janis Joplin. Two doors on either side of a huge cabinet appear all set for the play’s quick comic entrances, exits, and concealments. And Sound Designer Kaitlyn E.M. Sapp has a delightful preshow playlist of Joni Mitchell et al. emanating from backstage as if from a dressing room.

Peter Mikhail (Charles II) and Dina Soltan (Aphra Behn) in ‘Or,’ Photo by Patrick Landes.

The real Aphra Behn was both a spy for Charles II in Surinam and a playwright for the theater he reopened in London. As imagined by Adams, Aphra (played here by Dina Soltan) hooks up not only with Charles (Peter Mikhail) but also with the famous actress Nell Gwynne (Zoe Walpole) and two other paramours (doubled by Mikhail and Walpole), all the while on deadline to finish a play commissioned by the wealthy Lady Davenant (Mikhail in flamboyant drag). As directed by Chelsea Radigan, the production also features the intermittent singing and ukulele playing of an unnamed Ensemble (Patty Pablo). And Costume Designer Madison Booth has garbed them all in an appealingly colorful hybrid of lords and ladies and the love generation.

The play as written is a perfect storm of erotic passion, artistic fervor, and delectable repartee. It’s got a story line begging for belly laughs. It’s also loaded with fascinating and feisty feminist insights, as I discussed (with quotes from the script) in a column I wrote when Round House Theatre produced Or, two years ago. So, watching the present Theatre Prometheus production, which I found disappointing, I could not help recall how much more rollicking the same play had been at Round House. And it wasn’t because of the budget differential. It was because the direction and performances at Prometheus did not do justice to the play.

Dina Soltan (Aphra Behn) and Zoe Walpole (Nell Gwynne) in ‘Or,’ Photo by Patrick Landes.

The problem began at the beginning, where there’s a long prologue about how “we all embody opposites within.” It’s intended to be delivered by Behn to the audience. Instead Radigan broke the monologue into separate speeches for the four cast members. The result was incoherent, impossible to follow. The lines were a discontinuous, mumbled jumble.  If I—who had recently reread that speech—was lost, what must someone new to the play be thinking?!

The problem continued in subsequent scenes with a similar indifference toward the text. That CHAW blackbox is exceedingly small. It should not be difficult for actors to project and articulate into it such that a playwright’s crisp wit can land and be savored. Alas, even in the second row, my companion and I had trouble hearing and comprehending, and the sort of disengagement set in that is fatal to live theater.

Theater Prometheus has done much, much better, and I fully expect it will again.

Running Time: 85 minutes, with no intermission.

Or, plays through August 17, 2019, at Theatre Prometheus performing at Capital Hill Arts Workshop, 545 7th Street SE, Washington, DC. Tickets are available for purchase online or at the door.

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John Stoltenberg
Among the hats John Stoltenberg wears are novelist and author, creative director and communications strategist, and avid theatergoer. Decades ago, in college, he began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile Stoltenberg’s own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then his life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction and what became a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg.

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