***1/2Traveler, lover, playwright, spy — Aphra Behn’s improbable careers could have filled a few John Le Carre novels. The 17th century author of “The Rover” is cited most often as the first woman who earned her living writing in English. But in Liz Duffy Adams’ mischievous “Or,” now in its local premiere with Caffeine Theatre under Catherine Weidner’s cunning direction, Behn takes on attributes of a character in a very Behn-like comedy.
In 70 minutes, Adams unspools a tale that melds feminist literary criticism with bodice-ripping bedroom farce and political intrigue, while playing fast-and-loose with Behn’s biography. The show opens in the debtors’ prison where Megan Kohl’s Behn cools her heels for unpaid bills accrued while spying for the recently-restored Charles II (true). She then turns into a semi-kept woman under the protection of the amorous king (fiction), feverishly trying to finish a play that will make her name and grant her financial independence.
Now that the no-fun-allowed Puritans are out of power, theater is hot again — and so is Nell Gwynne (Kay Kron), the saucy actress whose attributes attract both Behn and the king (Edward Karch). The arrival of Behn’s presumed-dead comrade in espionage, William Scot (Karch again) sets off a series of door-slamming conspiracies and counteractions.
In essence, it’s like Tom Stoppard crossed with Georges Feydeau, but Adams brings her own distinct contemporary spin, and the inside-theater meta-jokes she sprinkles throughout don’t weigh down the spun-sugar-girded-with-steel construction of the tale. And unlike many farces, this one doesn’t depend upon the audience assuming that the characters are stump stupid.
The play does begin with a perhaps slightly-overstated prologue that reminds us of the “dense array of seeming opposites” (“actress or whore”) that women in particular must labor under. But the Aphra Behn we meet here is neither a humorless virago nor a moon-eyed bohemian. “I never knew how to stop loving. I only knew how to keep it from stopping me,” she observes with keen self-awareness — and by the way Behn dashes to her desk in the middle of life-and-death action to get just a few more lines on paper, we believe her.
Kohl brings warm-hearted intelligence and just a tinge of sadness to her pioneering playwright, and Kron (who plays three characters in addition to Gwynne) and Karch zig and zag between their multiple bewigged roles with comic elan. Stephen H. Carmody’s shoebox set proves surprisingly sturdy for all the abuse it takes, and Alarie Hammock’s costumes provide hints of anachronistic fun (the white patent platform boots worn by Kron’s overbearing theater owner, Lady Davenant, are a particularly nice touch). Caffeine’s witty and tensile production does great honor to both Behn and to Adams, whose work deserves more airings on Chicago stages.
Through Dec. 4 at Collaboraction Theatre, Flatiron Arts Building, 1575 N. Milwaukee Ave.; $20 at 312-409-4778 or caffeinetheatre.com
"Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy"
It’s more fizzle than sizzle in New Suit Theatre Company’s latest, fashioned from a fairly obscure 2008 documentary-about-making-a-documentary-on-global-warming by marine biologist Dr. Randy Olson that turns into an “Odd Couple” picaresque about Olson (Andrew Nowak) and his skeptical straight-talking cameraman, Antoine (Jovan King). The two travel cross-country to interview scientists on both sides of the climate change debate. Along the way, they bicker, make up, and end up influencing each other in ways that will not be the least surprising for anyone who has ever seen a generic buddy comedy.
I’ve not seen the doc in question, but the points raised by Sara Gmitter and Jason Burkett’s adaptation — namely, scientists don’t know how to talk to regular folks about climate change in a way that connects with them personally —seem fair enough. Unfortunately, neither the script nor Aaron Henrickson’s clunky staging give us much breathing room. Korri Givens does some admirably understated work as Tyra, the sensible assistant to producer Mitch (played by Michael Reyes).
But Nowak stays in annoying-nerd mode, and it’s hard to imagine how he managed to score face time with any of the scientists we meet here. Very recently, the “Climategate” allegations that scientists fudged research to support the notion of human-caused global warming were debunked by no less than global-warming skeptic Richard Muller (who was funded in part by the equally skeptical billionaire Koch brothers). “Sizzle” wastes time with the kind of let’s-give-everyone-a-voice nonsense that contributes not only to the warming of the planet, but the dumbing down of critical debates.
Through Nov. 13 at Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark St.; $20 at 773-977-8487 or newsuittheatre.com