Monday, November 15, 2010

Playwrights in Person, part 2: Liz Duffy Adams (plus "Or," at the Magic)

When I went to see a preview performance of Or, at the Magic Theatre on Friday 11/5, playwright Liz Duffy Adams was in the house, and participated in a talk-back after the show. I have actually met Liz Duffy Adams on two other occasions, not that she would remember me -- first when I was an intern at JAW the summer they workshopped her play The Listener, and then last February at a Playwrights' Pub Night. So I didn't say hello to her, though I did ask her a question during the talk-back.

Or, (yes, that's the title) is a farce inspired by the life of Aphra Behn, the first woman to earn a living as a playwright. According to the show of hands at the talk-back, I was one of only 2 people in the audience to have read any Aphra Behn -- chalk it up to my majoring in drama at a former women's college, and being a proud female playwright with a nerdy interest in my predecessors. Under the "favorite quotes" section on Facebook, I have had, for several years, this morsel of Behn:
If I must not, because of my sex, have this freedom, but that you will usurp all to yourselves, I lay down my quill--no, not so much as to make comparisons, because I will be kinder to my brothers than they have been to a defenseless woman--for I am not content to write for a third day only. I value fame as much as if I had been born a hero, and if you rob me of that, I can retire from the ungrateful world, and scorn its fickle favors.
I am no longer sure if, like Aphra, I "value fame as much as if I had been born a hero." But I am amazed at the guts it took for her to write this in the late 1600s--I find it inspirational, and so I keep it on my Facebook profile.

Clearly, Liz Duffy Adams also finds Aphra Behn an inspirational figure (and Or, has Aphra speak this very quote). The Aphra of Or, is a confident, alluring woman who can seduce both men and women, help thwart Catholic plots against King Charles' life, and, in between all this romantic and political intrigue, find the time to write masterful plays and poems. Yes, she is a superheroine! But somehow, that made me less interested in the play. I have often thought that if your reason for writing a play is to tell other people "So-and-so (or Such-and-such) is Really Awesome," the resulting play is not likely to be very good, because it will lack dramatic tension. So, watching Or, I already knew that Aphra Behn was Really Awesome, and therefore wanted more from the play. Considering the difficulties of being a female writer in 1600s England, I thought that the play's Aphra should have had more moments of vulnerability, instead of sailing through her life with such aplomb. Somehow, she manages to "have it all": enough time for indolent sensual pleasures, and enough time for writing! OK, I'm jealous.

One of the gimmicks of Or, is that this classic door-slamming farce is performed with just three actors; one (at the Magic, Natacha Roi) plays Aphra, and two others take on all the rest of the parts. Maggie Mason was hilarious and captivating in the female roles: saucy actress Nell Gwynne, surly housemaid Maria, and imperious impresario Lady Davenant (whose mile-a-minute monologue was the highlight of the play). But I thought that Ben Huber, in the male roles, didn't do enough to distinguish King Charles II from secret agent William Scot, and his voice sounded dismayingly Southern California. (The actors in this production employ their natural accents. Roi and Huber are American; Mason is English.)

At the talk-back after the show, I asked Liz Duffy Adams a very muddled, very playwright-nerdy question that went something like this: "When you're writing a play that's set in the past--and clearly you did a lot of research for this--how do you balance the desire to be faithful to what you know of the past, and to teach the audience about it, with the desire to just tell a story, you know, the requirements of drama?"

"I don't know, that's something I was asking myself all through the writing process," said Adams. "Did I succeed? You tell me."

I asked this question for a couple of reasons. Partly because I wrestle with this question when writing a play that's set in the past -- how to balance my desire to cram all my research and tons of themes into the play, with the need to make things clear and not leave too many loose threads. (I was recently talking with a friend about my play that takes place in the 1930s, agreeing with him that it suffers from my trying to cram everything in.) For, while I like big, ambitious, geeky plays, I also think that the primary purpose of theater is not to educate. Or, at least, not to educate about historical facts... it is to educate about human behavior and the human heart.

And I wasn't sure whether Adams had completely succeeded at achieving this balance between cleverness and emotion -- despite the breezy, farcical, "this is not a staid old history lesson" tone of her play. It seemed, from the questions people asked during the talk-back, that their primary interest in Or, was historic: they wanted to know if these events had "really happened" (Was Aphra Behn really a spy? Was she really King Charles' lover?). And they valued Adams not so much for her original writing and construction of a farce plot involving these characters, but rather for introducing them to Aphra Behn, and to an era of British history that many people are not familiar with. Wouldn't it have been better if they were so taken with Adams' writing that they had been full of questions about how she came up with this plot, these characters in these configurations? Or if they had talked about what the play made them feel, not what made them think? Or am I just an unredeemable playwriting-nerd?

Well, if I can be a woman and an unredeemable playwriting nerd, I guess I have Aphra Behn to thank for that.

Image: Maggie Mason as Nell Gwynne, Natacha Roi as Aphra Behn. Photo by Jennifer Reiley (found on the Magic Theater's Facebook photos page).


Dr.J said...

Catholic plots against King Charles
life? for instance?
The only Charles to lose his life (let´s wait for the current Prince of Wales, though) had it chopped by Puritans I seem to remember vaguely.

Marissa Skudlarek said...

The Charles in this play is Charles II -- son of Charles I, who got his head chopped off by the Puritans. After about a decade of Puritan rule under Oliver Cromwell, the monarchy was restored and Charles II came to power. He was a Protestant, and had no legitimate children; his Catholic brother, James, was next in line to inherit the throne. So there were Catholic plots afoot to assassinate Charles and bring James to power. You are correct, though, that none of these plots succeeded. Charles II died of natural causes at the age of 54.

Dr.J said...

Yes, and there is a fine account of him in the great Samuel pepys Diaries. A wonderful source for picking plots for plays, don´t you think?
Funny that in November the British have Guy Fawkes night, the Poppy Day, Lord Mayor of the City of London Parade and now Prince William wedding announcement; last time I went to the Uk was a November, miserable weather!
Good luck with your plays deadlines Marissa, I am writing a novel (got ten chapters by now)