Arts & Events

New: Theater Review: 'Or' at Berkeley City Club, Staged by Anton's Well

Ken Bullock
Friday December 04, 2015 - 04:58:00 PM

The proof of the pudding, they say, is in the eating, and in theater, the proof's in the show. This's where Berkeley troupe Anton's Well--which staged a splendid three-hander, Pinter's 'Old Times,' at the Berkeley City Club last year--scores in returning to the scene with Liz Duffy Adams' "costume comedy" 'Or,' also cast for a threesome, about the English Restoration and the first successful female playwright, Aphra Benn--in a show which displays perhaps the most tried-and-true value in live theater: Trouping.  

Anton's Well, named for Chekhov, takes the idea of theater as a little republic of equals seriously, though it presents it with a nice, light touch. Founder and director Robert Estes stated, when the tiny company put on 'Old Times,' that he wanted to work with the people he loves. And here he--and they--have done it again, demonstrably, in a show about significant people in past history loving each other maybe a little much ...  

A threesome, but more complicated than just a ménage à trois. Mary Jo Price, who was in last year's production of 'Old Times,' is forthright and forthcoming as playwright (and former government spy) Aphra Behn, who in turn is trying to write a play and get it staged, as well as manage a multiplex love-life without seeming to be anything but busy. At the start, she's approached at home by a well-dressed and mannered man in a festive mask, professing his dedication to her. Later, she meets with famed actress Nell Gwyn ("pretty, witty Nell" of Pepys' diaries, consort to Restoration Rakes, nobility and to Royalty, played by a girlish, wayward Colleen Egan), and must again make choices beyond those of casting--especially at the reappearance of the masked man and also of a former lover (and fellow spy) thought to be both a betrayer and long dead--each played by a dynamic Paul Stout. 

This is where 'Or' comes closest to the histrionic Restoration scene it attempts to portray, in the characters not only being involved in or admirers of theater, but both actors and charactors playing several roles each--with the exception of Price, who plays a single role, though true of her portrayal of Behn, both playwright and spy--a double role in itself--as well as the multiple role of promiscuous lover. Even so, it's often comes off more like the "experimental" Swinging London of the 1960s than the hysterical, split personality of London of the late 1660s--less the bawdy comedy of Wycherley's 'The Country Wife' than the daffy cinematic sex confusion of the film version of Ann Jellicoe's 'The Knack and How to Get It.'  

(The tensions of a past Puritan Revolution and a future Glorious Revolution of the mddle class; the belief in the Divine Right of Kings--with Behn as a staunch partisan--and a philandering monarch, Charles II, resented by a taxed-out populace and a future contractual king "hired on" by Parliament all crowd together in the wildness of the Restoration scene, where Lord Rochester, atheist, blasphemer, poet and one of the more notorious Court Wits, a friend to both Behn and Nell Gwyn, could deal out an impromteau lampoon to a laughing King Charles' face: "Here lies our sovereign lord the king,/Whose word no man relies on;/Who never said a foolish thing,/Nor ever did a wise one."--and die at 33 of the combined effects of drinking and syphilis, converting to Puritanism on his death bed. 

This brings up another difficulty, which Orson Welles remarked on as the principal problem in playing Shakespeare in America: "Where a king is seen as a gentleman with a crown instead of a hat." Stout's portrayal of Charles is adroit, but more that of a slumming aristocrat, not a semi-divine monarch with feet of clay. But this touches on another distinction: the play captures an imaginary first meeting between Charles and his future mistress Nell Gwyn. Egan's charming, wanton Gwyn's much more naïve than her original, who leaned out of a coach in Oxford when derided by a crowd, mistaking her for her French rival in the King's affections, Louise de Kérouville, and saying: "You're mistaken; I'm the Protestant whore!") 

But again, the proof's in the pudding, in the cast's enthusiasm, mirroring the director's; in the set which makes a kind of door-slammer farce into a quick-change curtain parter; in Bert Van Aalsberg's light design--and in the company's intention to entertain, as announced in the Anton's Well website description of the play: a comic romp.  

Adding contrast and lightness to the play before--Pinter's 'Old Times'--and the one to follow 'Or'--the Bay Area premiere of Christopher Shinn's Pulitzer Prize-nominated 'Dying City,' another three-hander, about Iraq (opening December 11)--is the mark of a good theater company. It's a good play for the Holidays, going into its final weekend. 

This Friday and Saturday at 8, Sunday at 2, Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant. Tickets: $17-$20.