Nicholas Wilder and Rebecca Tucker in “Or,” at Portland Stage. Photos by No Umbrella Media LLC

Do you prefer plays that give you something to think about? Or are a few good laughs enough to draw you in? Portland Stage has imported a play that artfully balances serious and silly in a highly entertaining way.

The Winnipesaukee Playhouse production of the Liz Duffy Adams 2009 play “Or,” which was performed al fresco in Meredith, New Hampshire, last year, was “reconstructed” to fit Portland Stage’s indoor stage. A performance from a brief in-person run of the play in Portland is available to stream online through the end of the month.

Telling the fictionalized story of Aphra Behn (1640-1689), an aspiring playwright and former spy whose life and art called into question all manner of stuffy period norms, “Or,” presents a condensed history of late 17th century England. It encompasses social, political, religious, artistic, gender, sexual and other loci of change in that crucial period and suggests parallels to more recent times. The play’s deft balancing of styles and sensibilities with plenty of verbal and visual comedy makes for both an enriching and fun time at the (home) theater.

Three actors, two in multiple roles, populate the stage with royals, servants, schemers and theater people. Designer Anita Stewart has given the players a raised platform but employs the broader stage in a way that helps to accentuate the many theatrical strands pulled together within this not always subtle, but nonetheless sophisticated, show.

Directed for stage and screen by Aileen Wen McGroddy, cast members keep the dialogue crisp and the action often frantic as former and future lovers, suspicious conspirators, and flamboyant patrons engage with a sharp-witted heroine who must work hard to avoid their distractions.

Taking full advantage of expressive opportunities within her iconic character’s struggles, Rebecca Tucker warmly personalizes and energizes a role that occasionally has her emoting via colorful verse. Her Aphra’s drive to succeed in the theater is tested. But having seen the nastier side of life while serving as a spy, she is all too aware of the perils of being an ambitious woman in unliberated times and is resolute in believing her creative efforts will “increase the sum of happiness in the world.” Tucker’s performance effectively pulls at all those threads.

Rebecca Tucker and Haley Jones in “Or,” at Portland Stage.

Haley Jones almost steals the show as Nell Gwynne, an accomplished actress with a refreshingly ribald sensibility. Author Adams gives Gwynne some of the wittiest lines, and Jones runs with them for a charismatic performance that is all but matched by her other major part as a steamrolling theater producer. In the latter role, her rapid-fire delivery contains a wealth of wry observations, such as warning the playwright to “never leave actors with nothing to do.”

Nicholas Wilder’s hedonistic King Charles II borders on pomposity but also reveals, between amorous interludes with Aphra and/or Nell, hints of being a reformer. Wilder’s other major character, William Scot, is played as a charged-up, if slightly dorky, threat to the hoped-for new “golden age.”

Bringing this smart and amusing play across the border was a good move by Portland Stage.

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.


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