URBANA — As Liz Duffy Adam's play, "Or," opens, the real-life character Aphra Behn, the first commercially successful female playwright in the Western tradition, languishes in debtors' jail, having not been paid for her work as a spy for King Charles II.
She is quickly sprung, though, presumably by the monarch himself, who might be a former lover. The Restoration comedy set in 17th century London goes on to tell the story of Behn's transition to becoming a playwright and seeing her first play produced on the London stage.
Among other characters in the play is the real-life actress Nell Gwynne, who was one of the two most famous actresses of her time, as well as King Charles II.
"It certainly has some historical truths, but it also takes off from there and has stuff that would not bear up to historical scrutiny," said Kay Bohannon Holley, who directs "Or," opening tonight (Thursday, March 28) at the Station Theatre.
The Celebration Company gives this synopsis of "Or,":
"Aphra Behn is getting out of the spy game and into showbiz. Sprung from debtors' prison after a disastrous overseas mission, she'll fulfill her dream of becoming the first professional female playwright — if she can finish her play by morning. All that's standing in her way are her royal lover, King Charles II; magnetic actress Nell Gwynne; and double agent William Scot, who may or may not be trying to murder the king. Double-crossing, cross-dressing, sex, art and politics all come together in playwright Liz Duffy Adams' mischievous, bodice-ripping farce that peers into the life and times of the literal first lady of the stage."
Holley called "Or," a bawdy comedy, with elements of farce.
"I think everybody in this play kisses almost everybody else in this play," she said.
That's one reason Lindsey Gates-Markel, a writer herself, with an master's of fine arts degree in creative writing from Lesley University, likes the play and portraying Behn.
"I find it inspiring that all the women in the play know exactly what they want and ask for it," she said. "We keep talking about how sexy it is."
For Stephanie Swearingen, portraying the witty Nell Gwynne is a departure. She usually plays sweet, innocent types, she said.
Swearingen also portrays Maria, who is Behn's servant, and the Jailer.
Mathew Green, who usually portrays dark, brooding characters, is Charles II and William Scot, a double agent who might be planning to murder the king. Wearing a long dark wig and a period costume before rehearsal Monday night, Green had a worried look.
"I'm terrified of comedy," he said. "I always have been. Doing any kind of play, especially comedy, is dancing on the edge of the knife. Success depends on so many things, like timing, quick changes. A show like this is very dependent on the audience coming along for the ride. Luckily, this is very funny."
Appearing in a featured role in "Or," is veteran actor Gary Ambler. Holley, the cast and Ambler would not identify the character or characters he portrays — but before rehearsal Monday evening Ambler was wearing a long, white tutu.
Malia Andrus designed and built the costumes, drawing from a variety of sources. She became knowledgeable about period costumes when she has designed for her high school plays. Since then, half of her theater experience has been costume design and the other half, acting. (She does not have an onstage role in "Or," though.)
Michael Steen, a stylist at Fuad's Creative Hair Design and a community theater actor, built the period wigs for "Or," which has a running time of 90 minutes, without intermission.
If you go
What: The Celebration Company presents the comedy "Or," written by Liz Duffy Adams and directed by Kay Bohannon Holley
When: 8 p.m. today through April 13; play runs Wednesdays through Sundays each week
Where: The Station Theatre, 223 N. Broadway, U
Tickets: $10 on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays; $15 on Fridays and Saturdays
Reservations: 384-4000; stationtheatre.com