Hip Shot: Empress of the Moon: The Lives of Aphra Behn
Sprenger – Atlas Performing Arts Center
Wednesday, July 23 at 8:45 p.m.
Friday, July 25 at 9:15 p.m.
They Say: “Aphra Behn the British playwright! History tells us precious little – was she truly a spy? How many men did she kill? What was she doing in Surinam? At last, herein find the answers – as unlikely as they are extraordinary!”
Derek's Take: Awaken, Philistines! Empress of the Moon... wishes to acquaint with the derring-do of Aphra Behn (pronounced BAIN), Restoration England's first professional female author, poet, and playwright, and occasionally, a spy. History salutes her for her pioneering feminist wit as well as her contributions to the narrative style that would become, in the 18th century, the novel.
But what is this, some boring lecture about English lit? Writer Chris Braak and the gang at Forearmed Productions say hell no in their uneven but spirited show, which plumbs Behn's murky backstory and fabulist prose to argue for her inclusion in the literary firmament. It's a tale bubbling with intrigue, ribaldry, and switcheroos – one can imagine Littlefinger pulling the strings in far-off Westeros – but for all its verve in enacting Behn's mysteries, the production feels like a disjointed clip reel devoid of meaningful stakes.
The play opens with its all-female cast striding onstage in satiny gowns, the thump of their bare heels guiding us to Surinam, where Astrea (Colleen Hughes), Behn's clandestine alter ego, is sent to woo the colonial governor. The action unfolds on parallel tracks: there's Astrea, in the past, sparring with her would-be suitor – the boozy, condescending Lord Willoughby – while the narrator (Laura McWater) comments from the wings. As a device, this two-track storytelling mostly works. It shows how Behn (as the narrator) in later years tweaked or invented whole entire segments of her life. But did she really fall for the doomed African prince-turned-slave called Oroonoko? How will this affect her mission? Even Braak's characters can't be sure, as the narrator occasionally intervenes to clarify events, advance the story, or deliver a deft bon mot.
If it’s all made up, could the slave prince have truly meant anything to her? Should we care? It’s hard to say when the incongruities are played mainly for laughs.
Braak’s narrative jumble eases somewhat as it flows into the second act, when Astrea/Behn (now played by Sarah Robinson) ends up in the Netherlands. This time she’s supporting a political mission that goes nowhere due to pressing, practical matters: essentially, she’s broke. So for a fee, she agrees to help her contact, Dr. Adis, find a consort. This development unleashes the play’s most inspired interlude, where the ensemble spews Behn-worthy witticisms with lusty, misanthropic glee. Alexandra Blouin and Kristen Norine, in particular, deliver funny, bawdy performances as the undersexed Dr. Adis and Valeria, the prostitute of his dreams. It’s unfortunate, then, that the two never actually meet. Instead, we watch Behn shuttle between them while at once courting/counseling Valeria and Adis’s frigid wife, Maria. Alas, after a few confusing beats, Behn’s plan falls apart and she returns to England both penniless and alone.
This production stuffs far too many plot points into too little time, explaining little throughout. On the job front, it’s never clear what exactly Behn’s doing to assist the British crown; her adventures are mere preludes to love earned too easily and then quickly lost. And those loves, too, exist mainly to setup tongue-snapping aphorisms which often stand apart from the action that precedes them. It’s as though, over two acts, we’re watching two separate plays that have been hastily cobbled together. Only in the final scene, when the narrator leaves the wings and inhabits Behn at center stage, do we see a greater measure of this show's potential. Here, Behn appeals for payment for her services and defends her "sins" of the flesh as nothing more than a simple expression of her humanity. At last, we see the vulnerable woman behind the wit grasping for her fair share of life's rewards in a stringently patriarchal age. It's a slow, wonderfully unraveling sequence which McWater pulls off movingly, leaving us wanting more.
See it if: You're gearing up for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo!).
Skip it if: You slept through English Lit as a matter of principle.
DISCLOSURE: The author of this post is an actor in the Capital Fringe show DECADES.