Amy J. Carle in Forward Theater Company's <i>Or,</i>
The new Forward Theater Company production, Or, is set in Restoration England, but it's no fussy costume drama -- not by a long shot. Rather, it's a saucy and smart finish to the company's fifth season. During the opening night performance, the three-person cast quickly won over the audience with fine comic timing. The production runs through April 13 at Overture Center's Playhouse.
Or, (that dangling comma is deliberate) centers on 17th-century playwright Aphra Behn. The title suggests the many dualities of Behn's life: poet and spy, lover of men and women, bawdy and witty. The prolific Behn was Europe's first female playwright to support herself through her writing. Written by Liz Duffy Adams, Or, had its New York debut in 2009.
As Aphra, Chicago-based actress Amy J. Carle (who was terrific several years ago in Madison Rep's Fully Committed) brings earthy intelligence to her role. Even in debtors' prison, where we first meet her, Aphra is unbowed. We see her first with a Cockney-accented jailor (Milwaukee's Norman Moses) and then with a masked visitor who turns out to be none other than a smitten King Charles II (also Moses).
Later, out of prison and writing furiously in her own room, Aphra is repeatedly interrupted by a slew of fellow historical figures, including the famous actress Nell Gwynne, theater manager Lady Davenant, and William Scot, a fellow spy. A lot of the fun in Or, comes from triple-casting. Moses isn't just the jailor and king; he's William, too, and Colleen Madden (best known for her work with American Players Theatre) is the androgynous Nell, the aristocratic lady, and a stooped servant named Maria.
In this three-person cast, director Jennifer Uphoff Gray has a dream team of top-flight actors, and it's a pleasure to watch them together. Given that she often plays dramatic roles at APT, Madden is sometimes under-appreciated as a comedienne, but her fast-talking Lady Davenant is a scene stealer, and her lines as the servant (which slyly comment on the play in a meta-theatrical way) are a hoot. She's also a perfect fit for sexy Nell, anachronistically outfitted in a cutoff jean jacket. (Kudos to costume designer Holly Payne, whose choices mesh well with the intentionally out-of-time elements of the play.)
I was also glad to see more of Moses, who had a role in Forward's first fully staged production (Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them). There's a loosey-goosey quality to his Charles II that is pure fun. Moses needs to make several rapid-fire shifts between characters -- so much so that this is part of the joke -- and he handles them masterfully. Ironically, even though Aphra is a renegade due to her bold choices, it's Madden and Moses who get to revel the most in the farcical elements of Or, and they are a treat to watch.
While some of the political intrigue in Or, gets a little murky to follow, this show is the playful highlight of Forward's current season. Thanks to set designer Frank Schneeberger and properties designer Charles J. Trieloff II, it's good-looking, too.