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Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Southwest Shakespeare Company
Review by Gil Benbrook | Season Schedule

Also see Gil's reviews of The Drowsy Chaperone and Pageant

Alison Sell and Emily Mohney
Photo by Patrick Walsh / Southwest Shakespeare Company
History play or comical farce? Smartly written, thought-provoking prose or hilarious, knee-slapping jokes? In the case of Liz Duffy Adams' crafty comedy Or, the answer isn't one "or" the other, but a resounding "all of the above," as Adams effortlessly combines all of the aforementioned elements into a door-slamming, historically dramatic farce and an exceptional and provocative comedy. With a sublime cast and sure-footed direction, Southwest Shakespeare Company's Arizona premiere production is just as impressive as Adams' well written script.

Or, focuses on real-life English spy Aphra Behn, who was also a playwright, and is set in the late 1660s after Oliver Cromwell's death sets in motion the downfall of the regressive British Commonwealth. Parliament has restored the monarchy to Charles II, who, during this period of "restoration," has reopened the theaters and now allows women for the first time to play women's roles. The play takes place mostly in a single day at the point in Behn's life when she decides to give up her job of spying for the government to focus on becoming England's first female professional playwright. A chance meeting with a theatrical producer sets Behn up for possible success but she's in a crunch as she needs to finish her play by morning since the theatrical company is ready to begin their next production. She also encounters a trio of real life individuals—including King Charles, the free spirited actress Nell Gwynn, and the double agent spy William Scott—who keep interrupting her ability to finish her play in time.

Adams attempts to incorporate the sexual freedom of the 1960s with the newfound freedoms that Charles' return have allowed in the 1660s to create a time and gender bending farce. And while she may not completely succeed in demonstrating the parallels of the two time periods, Adams' use of both modern and classic verse, even a bit of iambic pentameter, plus some 20th century slang, do cross the centuries and result in a fun, thought-provoking play full of intrigue and intriguing characters.

The simple connective, yet also somewhat divisive, word "or" is of extreme importance in Adams' play. Her title refers to the common practice of two-titled plays of the period, such as Behn's own The Rover or, the Banish'd Cavaliers, as well as the various professions that Behn held (spy or playwright) and even the theatrical conceit of having two of the actors in the cast play multiple roles, but never at the same time—thus "or" and not "and." Adams also incorporates the title into her play. In the prologue, after a series of statements are read, such as "gay or straight" and "male or female," it is stated that the play will "unhinge the R, and step through the O" to show that the word actually divides less than it seemingly links. The theatrical producer also tells Behn that the title of her play can be anything she wants, expect "no titles with 'or' in it."

Southwest Shakespeare's cast is superb. Emily Mohney is simply radiant as Behn. Engaging, determined, ambitious, tough, focused, self-possessed, sexy, and sensual are all explicit traits that Mohney expertly, and effortlessly, establishes in Behn. Jesse James Kamps and Allison Sell portray every other character in the play with comical relish and senseless abandonment. While Kamps' Charles and Scott are both dashing and different, it is his uproarious take on the female theatrical producer Lady Davenant that elicits raucous laughter. Sell is just as good in the role of the free-natured Gwynn, as well as Behn's hilarious, cursing, Antwerp hating, faithful servant Maria. They make each character unique and full of life. Kamps and Sell have several quick changes which only add to the joyous, and theatrical, nature of the production. I can't imagine a better trio of actors incorporating these roles so assuredly.

Patrick Walsh's direction is sharp and focused and he keeps the farcical elements playful and fun. The combination of Mallory Prucha's lush scenic design with Maci Hosler's stunning and detailed costumes and the evocative lighting by Daniel Davisson create some impressive stage images.

Or, is an interesting mashup of historical drama and farce. Even though she doesn't completely meld the 1660s and the 1960s time periods, Adams has written fascinating roles, based on real individuals, and instills the piece with a sense of hope, resulting in an engaging, fun intelligent, and theatrically rich comedy. With an excellent cast and spotless direction, Southwest Shakespeare's production is sensational.

Or, runs through September 17th, 2016, with performances at the Farnsworth Studio at the Mesa Arts Center, 1 East Main Street in Mesa, AZ. Tickets can be purchased at or by calling 480-644-6500

Director: Patrick Walsh
Scenic Designer: Mallory Prucha
Production Stage Manager: Jenissa Yauney
Costume Designer: Maci Hosler
Lighting Designer: Daniel Davisson
Hair and Make-Up Designer: Sasha Wordlaw
Properties Designers: Petey Swartz
Sound Designer: Peter Bish

Aphra Behn: Emily Mohney
Nell Gwynne and other roles: Allison Sell
King Charles II and other roles: Jesse James Kamps

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