Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Saucy Sawson & Company sizzle at Kickshaw

Vanessa Sawson and Mary Dilworth

From this critic's perspective, it's the little things that matter. And it's how those little things are discovered, played with and delivered by director Suzi Regan and her trio of terrific actors that lift Kickshaw Theatre's production of "Or," by Liz Duffy Adams into the realm of fine comedy.

It starts with the script. Rather than simply overloading the audience with tons of vital information about the story's time and place through a head-spinning monologue or two, Adams sprinkles short and entertaining bursts of meaningful historical references into various parts of the dialogue through which the audience ascertains the important facts it needs to understand the story moving forward: It takes place in London during the reign of King Charles II; recent wars, the Great Plague and Great Fire have taken their toll on the citizenry; and society is throwing off the shackles placed upon it by the Puritans.

At the same time, Adams is also acquainting the audience with the story's colorful protagonist. Although from a historical perspective not much is known about Aphra Behn's first 27 years of existence - and what little is known is subject to debate, likely the result of deliberate misdirection on the part of Behn herself - what's clear is this: What a fascinating life she lived throughout her remaining 21 years! Likely born in 1640, history remembers her best as a libertine poet and "one of the first prolific, high-profile female dramatists in Britain."

But she was also a spy on behalf of King Charles II, and it's a direct result of that risky (and for her, a not very fruitful) occupation that Adams' script opens with Behn in debtor's prison, caused by the high cost of living the job entailed and the likely lack of payment and reimbursement from the King for those very same services.

Although already a poet, Behn - who claimed to be a widow, although that too may have been a purposeful misdirection -  latched onto the idea that her best route to support herself would be to write for the theater, which in 1660 was experiencing a revival under the King. (Let's just say the prior rulers, the Puritans, were no fans of this evil art form and had shut it down.)

However, there was one significant roadblock: Play writing was a male-only occupation at the time. But since women had ideas, too - a novel concept back then - she saw no reason why she couldn't break into that exclusive club. Especially if she had a significant backer.

Therein enters the king. Literally.

But since this is a Restoration comedy, complications quickly arise that might find her not only in the arms of several different lovers in short order, but back at her old job as well!

A witty, well-researched script, "Or," is filled with sparkling and insightful dialogue, well-developed characters, an intriguing plot and an interesting linkage to the hippy-era of the 1960s (which explains the seemingly odd, but actually rather clever choice of pre-show music by Quintessa Gallinat).

It also serves plenty of red meat to creative directors such as Regan to pull out all the artistic chops they can muster to bring this colorful, sensual tale to life. A six-time Wilde Award nominee and two-time winner for directing (Panache at Williamston Theatre and the memorable Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolfe at Performance Network), Regan again proves why she is one of the gems of the theater, as her careful eye, long-honed instincts and ability to work with actors on interpreting complicated material are all apparent throughout the entire performance.

So what makes this show so tough, you might be wondering (other than it being a Restoration comedy)? For starters, there are seven characters but only three actors (Vanessa Sawson, Mary Dilworth and Daniel A. Helmer), one of whom plays only one role (Sawson, as Behn). That means the other two must divvy up the remaining six - and sometimes switch between them and back again rather quickly. Each does so quite well, as both Dilworth and Helmer are adept at creating distinct voices, mannerisms and gates to keep each character unique and easily identifiable. Plus, timing is everything - and at the final preview performance I attended this past Friday night, the show ran like clockwork; entrances, exits, quick changes of clothes and door slams all seemed flawless. (As an aside: It's extremely rare for me to visit and discuss preview performances, but apparently I didn't read the press information I received too closely, as I thought I was attending opening night. So once again I was reminded of a lesson I learned many decades ago: Never assume - and in this particular case, that if it's the first Friday performance, it must be opening night!)

And then there's this: Regan and her thespians dive head first into the script's take on gender and sexuality (of which both bend a bit). Yes, the free-loving 1960s did have much in common with the bawdy 1660s - and with anything-goes 2018 as well!

With no seat more than a handful of feet from the stage, it becomes even more important than usual for director and actors alike to pay close attention to the little things that can be found or implied in the script. That's especially true of both facial expressions and body language, and it's through subtle and carefully controlled changes to both that Dilworth and Helmer deliver much about their characters' thoughts and intentions. Dilworth's brilliant entrance as potential employer Lady Davenant, for example, reminded at least two of us in the audience of some of the best moments from Carol Burnett's old TV variety show. And Helmer's revelation as King to a surprised Behn sizzled and dripped with sexual tension, portending hot encounters (of many flavors) yet to come.

It's Sawson, however, who truly stands out. Behn is a strong and strong-willed woman built upon what seem to be numerous contradictions - spy vs. poet; female charting a career in an all-male profession; lover to both men and women - and as such, she must be played by someone who can be all of these things and do so convincingly. Sawson, with a strong background in Shakespeare and the classics, tackles the role with lusty gusto. As Behn, Sawson is sexy, she's naughty, she's brave, she's commanding, she's quick thinking, and she's intelligent - and she can switch from one to the other in an instant when the need arises. It's a masterful performance from start to finish.

Of the show's fine technical elements, Em Rossi's costumes are especially noteworthy. (See my earlier comment about Lady Davenant's entrance; the character's costume plays an important role in the audience reaction to her entrance.)

And finally, in this particular production, attention to the little things include the curtain call - which has become my favorite so far this (and last) season!

The Bottom Line: If you love your Restoration comedies to be delightfully bawdy and deliciously witty - and who doesn't? - get thee to Ann Arbor's Interfaith Center for Spiritual Growth by March 4 for Kickshaw Theatre's highly entertaining production of "Or," by Liz Duffy Adams.

For complete show information, CLICK HERE!

Daniel A. Helmer, Mary Dilworth and Vanessa Sawson

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