Rep Stage's 'Or' looks at barrier-breaking Sixties — 1660s, that is
Columbia-born actor and his wife star in production at Howard Community College's Studio Theatre
Rep Stage opens its season with "Or," starring Charlotte Cohn and Jason Odell Williams. (Handout photo, Handout photo / September 1, 2011)
Charles II didn't stop there. He allowed those theaters to do something previously unthinkable — engage women to act onstage.
If that didn't signal the fall of Puritanism, nothing would.
Those wild and crazy1660s also saw the rise of England's first successful female playwright, Aphra Behn. And that chapter from the Restoration inspired "Or," a comic work by Liz Duffy Adams that receives its regional premiere this week from Rep Stage in Columbia.
"Or," which had a successful run off-Broadway in 2009, packs in a lot of history — Behn was a spy for, and possibly a mistress of, Charles — and uses three actors to convey it.
The Rep Stage cast includes Charlotte Cohn as Behn and Jason Odell Williams as King Charles. Williams also has a couple of other roles, including a drag assignment as Lady Davenant, a woman who ran an acting company and produced some of Behn's plays.
Offstage, Cohn and Williams are husband and wife. "Or" is their first chance to act together since their days working on graduate degrees at the storied Actors Studio Drama School in New York.
Williams, a Columbia native, did his first acting as a student at the McDonogh School in Owings Mills.
"In fourth grade, they made you do a play," he said. "We all had to read four sentences into a tape recorder, and they decided who would get what parts in 'The Wizard of Oz.' I was the scarecrow. I got a huge laugh in the show, and I was hooked."
Williams, 36, kept on doing plays in his youth and earned a bacherlor's degree in theater at the University of Virginia. He met Cohn at the Actors Studio in 2001.
"Students were writing and directing plays, and they would rehearse in my apartment," Williams said. "Charlotte and I would act in them. We became a couple, and I proposed to her in a rehearsal. That was kind of dorky."
Cohn disputed the dorky part and finished the anecdote.
"He went off-script, and I turned to the director to see what was going on," she said. "Then Jason went down on one knee, and I thought, 'Oh, my God.'"
Cohn's path to the Actors Studio was a bit more circuitous than her husband's. Born in Copenhagen and raised in Jerusalem (her mother is Danish, her late father was Israeli), she initially set out to be an opera singer.
"After serving in the army, I moved to New York to get good vocal lessons," said Cohn, 43. "I was very hooked on opera. I think I misunderstood what the business side would be. I fell out of love with opera, but I loved the stage."
Cohn's vocal studies were hardly in vain. She performed in the Baz Luhrmann production of Puccini's "La Boheme" on Broadway, for example, and in the Rodgers and Hart musical "The Boys from Syracuse" at Center Stage.
Williams has appeared in off-Broadway shows and, like many a New York-based actor, has done time on daytime soaps. Locally, he starred last season at Rep Stage in a double bill of works by J. M. Barrie (a costar in that production, Christine Demuth, is in the "Or" cast).
In addition to being an actor, Williams is a prolific playwright. "His dream would be to have one of his plays produced here at Rep Stage," Cohn said.
Meanwhile, the couple has been enjoying the romp through "Or."
"It has a subtle, dry humor," Williams said. "There's also slapstick and farce. And there are these references to the 1960s — free love and all that."
Added Cohn: "Aphra makes references to the economy being bad, war dragging on, puritans, the rule of the mob. It's a very smart play that way. I didn't know it would be this much fun."
If you go
"Or" runs through Sept. 18 at Studio Theatre, Horowitz Center, Howard Community College, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia. Tickets are $12-$33. Call 443-518-1500 or go to repstage.org.