By Audrey Wells
The opening-night audience at The Celebration Company's production of "Or," by Liz Duffy Adams had an unambiguously wonderful time. The Station Theatre hosted a full house, and the cheerful pre-curtain buzz was backed by the bouncy Herman's Hermits' song "I'm Into Something Good."
And indeed we were.
"Or," brings to life the 17th century British dramatist Aphra Behn, the first English professional female writer. Behn's illustrious life also included a stint as a spy — and when she was not paid as expected, time in debtor's prison. The play tells Behn's story in a bawdy Restoration-style comedy, a form Behn knew well.
Engaging with Behn are other real historical characters, King Charles II, actress Nell Gwynne, and fellow spy William Scott. Reclaiming the right to have public performances after eighteen years of Puritanical rule, Restoration comedies (1660-1710), like this play, rebelled against repression with sexual openness and giddy plots.
The play begins in a prison cell but does not stay locked up for long. Lindsey Gates-Markel as Behn, sparkling and smart, easily entices the audience to fall in love with her from the first scene — and our allegiance to the heroine never wavers.
Equally strong and delightful are the performances of Mathew Green and Stephanie Swearingen, who appear in multiple roles, and it is great fun watching them switch — often quickly — into starkly contrasting characters.
Featured in one scene is the esteemed local favorite Gary Ambler who glides and huffs his way through the scene so exactingly, we hold our breath and explode into applause when he exits. "Or," has many inside jokes about actors and playwrights, and Ambler's participation adds a joyful dimension.
Under the deft and daring direction of Kay Bohannon Holley, the scenes sizzle, and the play, performed without an intermission, builds to its conclusion without any drag — except in some of the costuming, that is.
Costume designer Malia Andrus plays to the period with lush fabrics and lively colors. The juicy regalia are well complemented by the exuberant wigs fashioned by Michael Steen.
And the set design by Jadon Peck allows for fluidity of movement and inclusiveness. The side walls of the set angle out suggesting an enclosure that brings in the audience. We were all together in Behn's room (despite her claim to "have a room of her own," an apt allusion to Virginia Woolf).
Adding to the celebration of naughty, good fun and freedom in this production of "Or," is the British Invasion soundtrack. From the Bee Gees to the Beatles, the mood is upbeat and the spirit of a youth culture breaking free permeates.
The best quality of Adams' spunky play might be her use of language. The poetry is clever, and the characters entertain — even test — each other improvising rhyming couplets. Some of the humor also comes from the surprise of hearing lewd language.
From the prologue on, the audience perks its ears and enjoys the musicality of this rhyming play.
Taken together with the terrific acting, directing, costuming, staging, sound and story, the Celebration Company's production of "Or," gives little choice but to have a good time.
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. Wednesdays through Sundays through April 13
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
Audrey Wells is a freelance writer from Urbana.