Wednesday, July 18 , 2018, 4:39 am | Overcast 64º


Review: Elements Theatre Collective’s ‘Or’ Takes Delightful Liberties

Aphra Behn is a bold, heroic character of wit and wile. A poet, international spy and aspiring playwright in 1660s London, she is woman before her time, walking the fine edge between ruin and riches, disaster and triumph, her keen mind and artistic aspirations up against her frank desires.

Or by up-and-coming playwright Liz Duffy Adams walks the line itself, between historical representation and fanciful creation. Aphra and the other characters depicted were real people, but some of the events and connections between them are embellished if not fabricated.

The language, as well, carries the flavor of the period, but liberties are taken with the finer points so that it hovers somewhere between then and now, reality and fantasy — a literary foot in both worlds.

This is much how Aphra lives, juggling her budding career as a playwright and her hunger for fame and recognition with possible fallout from her past, multiple love affairs, and her own sense of morality with the choices she is required to make in her unique situation. She is smart, sensible and worldly, but is also human, with the accompanying foibles and failings.

Emily Jewell, co-founder and director of Elements Theatre Collective, has recently been seen in productions with Out of The Box Theatre Company and Santa Barbara City College. Not only has she shown that she is accomplished at comedy and has a killer singing voice, as Aphra she displays her facility with the dense, rich language of 17th century England and an underlying tension as well as a rich sensuality.

Aphra’s everyday conversations are poetic, but she must also think several steps ahead in her dealings with other characters, whether lovers, benefactors or traitors — and which is which?

Michael Bernard, a fine writer, storyteller and monologuist with an extensive background in theater in New York, is a relative newcomer to Santa Barbara. He unveiled his acting chops to the community in last year’s The Tempest with Lit Moon Theatre Company, which will tour Eastern Europe this summer.

Seen here in three very different roles, often requiring quick changes, he has a chance to show his dramatic and comic acting abilities. As King Charles II, Aphra’s current paramour, he is ardent and suave, and as William Scott, a past lover and partner in crime who attempts to blackmail her, he is ragged and charming in a desperate way. He even does a turn in drag, to hilarious effect.

Stephanie “Babz” Farnum, last seen as Miranda in The Tempest, is in turns charmingly sultry, foul-mouthed and flirtatious as Aphra’s newest suitor, a young but jaded gamine of an actress. She is another woman ahead of her time, reveling in the freedom a life in theater provides, though still chafing at the need to be kept by a man. Farnum also plays Aphra’s enchantingly sour maidservant, Maria, with little stage time but many of the best lines.

In the director’s seat of this, their third full production, is Sara Rademacher, who formed Elements along with Jewell in 2011. Her direction is sure and steady, keeping the tone well-balanced among romance, farce and drama.

With the challenge of staging the show in multiple unorthodox venues, such as Java Station and the Carpinteria Womans Club, set designer Sarah Bennett has risen to the task, creating Aphra’s world convincingly in the space available. Three doors leading offstage set up the space for many comical comings and goings, which play out beautifully.

Those who require absolute authenticity of every fact and detail best stay at home with the History Channel. But for those whose hearts and minds are open to the taking of playful liberties, Or provides passage into a delightful world of possibilities.

Or runs through Feb. 10 at various venues. Tickets are free, but reservations must be made by clicking here.

— Justine Sutton of Santa Barbara is a freelance writer and frequent Noozhawk reviewer.

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