Taking a closer look at Madison theater
Apr 1, 2014
04:19 PM
Stage Write

The Possibilities Are Endless in 'OR,'

The Possibilities Are Endless in 'OR,'

PHOTO BY ZANE WILLIAMS

The joy is palpable: Colleen Madden and Amy J. Carle embrace the possibilities as Nell Gywnne and Apra Behn in Forward Theater Compoany's 'OR,'

Liz Duffy Adams's OR, features what has to be one of the cleverest and most exhilarating prologues in the history of theater. Using what’s typically the moment to tell the audience to kill their cell phones, a woman clad in street clothes—in the case of Forward Theater Company’s production that’s Amy J. Carle, lounging on a stage littered with stage props from old Forward shows—uses verse to tell us what’s about to come.

”The world is changing, and a woman can be a part,” she proclaims. In a few seconds, she’ll reappear on stage as Aphra Behn, the first Restoration-era female playwright. It’s the first brushstroke in an evening of thoughtful, funny theater that features terrific performances from a trio of talented actors.

Set at a time in European history when everything suddenly seemed possible again—the Puritans beaten back, the Black Plague in abeyance, the theaters set to re-open—OR, (running through April 13 in the Overture Center Playhouse) celebrates hope, drive and self-determination. Largely in the form of Carle’s Aphra, a woman who’s looking to escape her past as a royal spy.

Whisked out of the doldrums of debtor’s prison by her employer/sponsor, the newly returned monarch Charles II (Norman Moses), Aphra’s pursuit of her theatrical dream suddenly becomes a forty-yard dash. She has to fend off the amorous advances of her king, whip up a first-rate script, match wits with a former lover and would-be assassin (Moses again) and keep everyone from bumping into each other in her drawing room.

 All in the same night, naturally.

Carle’s more than up to the task. Her Aphra is painfully aware of the societal pitfalls that still stand in her way, and her self-resolve is a thing of beauty to watch. The way Carle conducts an orchestra of language and poetry with Adams’s script, meanwhile, is a thing of beauty to hear. With some regularity, the characters engage in a form of iambic pentameter tennis, serving up lines for each other to rhyme.  

As juicy as Carle’s role is, it’s American Players Theatre vet Colleen Madden who gets the real smorgasbord here, sinking her teeth into three distinct and delicious roles. As the saucy and self-confident actress Nell Gwynne, she’s Aphra’s equal, willing to seize any opportunity to get what she wants, even if it means going where Aphra won’t. As Aphra’s cantankerous servant Maria, Madden mines some of the bit characters we’ve seen her do in Spring Green (think last summer’s Too Many Husbands). And as the blowsy and be-masked Lady Davenant, the theater producer who offers Aphra the chance of a lifetime, she’s quirky without falling into caricature, ten minutes of pure comedy gold on stage. That startling, machine-gun laugh she unleashes is a wonderful touch.

(Additional props to Madden for nailing the in-joke of an otherwise throwaway line, wrinkling her face as her Nell complains that “All I get to do is play the goddamned classics.” Good thing we know you love your main gig, Colleen.)

At one point, Lady Davenant offers Aphra a nugget of sage playwriting advice: “Never leave actors with nothing to do,” she says. Nether Adams's script nor director Jennifer Uphoff Gray’s staging make that misstep. OR,’s also a first-rate sex farce, with two of the actors (Madden and Moses) undergoing a dizzy symphony of costume changes that’s as hilarious as it is briskly staged. An oversized wardrobe in the center of the stage facilitates some of the exits and transformations, but in other cases, the backstage magic is almost organic in its efficiency. Not once are the two wigs Moses wears to switch between a would-be killer and a randy monarch even remotely out of place.

OR,’s a brisk one hundred minutes long, and even without an intermission it flies by, the way all enjoyable experiences tend to do. Aphra, Nell and Charles are characters with whom you’d love to spend more time, and that, perhaps more than anything else, is the strongest praise that can be offered.

OR,’s the close to Forward’s fifth season (more on the upcoming sixth here), and it’s impossible not to note the metaphor Gray’s woven in here: The world of Adams's play is an array of possibilities, and Forward’s ready to take advantage of their very own open horizon. Given what Gray and her company have shown themselves capable of so far, that’s not hard to believe at all.   

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About This Blog

Once upon a time—okay, it was the mid-'80s—a boy saw a performance of The Two Gentlemen of Verona at the annual summer Stratford Festival in Ontario, Canada, and a spark was ignited. Decades later, that spark’s only grown stronger, burning brightly every time the lights go up and the actors begin to tread the stage.

I’ve spent a long time—okay, more than 15 years—watching and writing about Madison’s theater scene. Now, more than ever, it’s clear our bustling burgh is packed with vibrant theater companies doing important, cutting-edge work, whether it’s original and daring content, stunning musicals or thought-provoking stagings of modern and classic plays. Stage Write is a place where we’ll talk about those plays and the people who make them happen, maybe look behind the curtain a little and gain some new perspective on how and why it all comes together. Theater has the power to transform, to educate, to show us who we are and where we’re going in a way no other medium can. Hey, look: The curtain’s rising.

– Aaron R. Conklin
Follow Aaron on Twitter @arconklin

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