In live theater, self-consciousness is contagious. When it begins in the text, the playwright gives it to the director, the director passes it to the actors, and the actors infect the audience. An hour or so after the curtain rises, everyone is squirming in his cushioned seat and imagining what's going on at home.
From this viewer's perspective, that is the case with Rep Stage's season-opening premiere of "Or," at Howard Community College. It's something of a send-up of Restoration theater, and something more of a cross-dressing, door-slamming farce. But it never transcends the one thing it is above all else: The very public spectacle of a playwright showing off.
Liz Duffy Adams displays her bag of dramatist's tricks over the course of the evening. She adopts various voices and styles, but the cleverness eventually comes to seem like a distraction. All we really want is something she never provides: A reason to care for any of the people she's writing about.
You would think that the life of Aphra Behn — a spy and adventuress who became the most successful female playwright of the Restoration era under King Charles II — would have been enough of a hook to hang a good play on. Think "Amadeus" for an example of how riveting the most arcane of dramatic subjects can be.
But Adams employs Behn primarily as an expression of her own satisfaction with the role of playwright in society. Instead of giving us insights into the historical character, Adams uses her protagonist as a mouthpiece for observations on male chauvinism, the proper role of the state ("Freedom for women is only possible under an enlightened monarch"), the chilling effect of religion on art, and the supposed harm that societies cause by imposing the notion of gender identity and masking our "true" androgynous nature.
For all the Restoration trappings thrown up and the 17th-century names dropped, "Or," seems more tuned in to the 1960s than the 1660s. If it feels good, do it, is one of the play's messages, and the corruption of nature by the rise of capitalism is another. On the other hand, Behn says there's nothing wrong with prostituting oneself to get ahead, especially if you're a playwright.
There's no sense of the horrific diseases that awaited a life of promiscuous abandon in the 1600s, nor is there any weight given at all to the name of Jesus Christ, which is used liberally throughout the play as both a curse and an expletive.
The staging at the intimate Studio Theatre demands a suspension of disbelief from the start. After being welcomed with a faux-Shakespearean prologue delivered by an enthusiastic player (Christine Demuth, who returns in better guises later on), we meet Aphra Behn and are asked to accept that this elegantly gowned, aristocratic lady sitting at an immaculate writing desk is actually a prisoner in a dungeon.
Simply dimming the stage lights and projecting the shadows of bars on her do nothing to help us imagine the setting. Worse, there's nothing in her demeanor that leads us to think she is suffering any sort of unkind fate. She seems pleased as punch at the attention of her jailer and is only fleetingly amazed at the arrival of a masked visitor, who turns out to be King Charles himself, offering her a proposition as a way of getting out of prison.
The rest of the play unfolds in the brighter surroundings of James Fouchard's well appointed upstairs parlor. Director Michael Stebbins uses every inch of the playing area with a practiced eye for balance and motivation.
Aphra Behn is played by Charlotte Cohn, a striking-looking, professional actress who makes for a very pleasant place holder on stage while we wait for her three-dimensional character to arrive.
Cohn isn't as adept as the other two cast members at the sort of physical comedy the staging requires. But then again, she must remain the bemused writer, holding all others at a distance as they race around having all the fun of the quick costume changes and multiple role-playing.
Jason Odell Williams makes another welcome appearance on a hometown stage and does much of the play's heavy-lifting as the effete King Charles and a conniving rogue named William Scott. Williams also evokes the evening's only spontaneous round of applause, playing the dowager wife of a theater producer who stops by to give Aphra a rambling tutorial on the proper etiquette of stagecraft.
Christine Demuth also reappears in three distinct roles. Her comical landlady is given a memorable posture and walking style that is as good as anything in an old Carol Burnett skit. Her Nell Gwynne, on the other hand, did not amount to a very plausible impression of that famed Restoration actress.
"Or," (the title has that comma in it, in the style of plays by William Wycherley and Sir George Etherege with long, double-jointed titles, like "The Man of Mode, or, Sir Flopping Flutter" and "On the Verge (or, The Geography of Yearning)."
Oh, wait, that last title was another modern play set in an unconvincing past and performed by Rep Stage a couple of seasons back. Come to think of it, it was a similarly meaningless exercise full of academic puns and word plays and smug, self-satisfied characters we never cared a fig about. Let's hope the Rep producers can halt the contagion before it spreads any further.
The Rep Stage Company production of "Or," continues through Sept. 18 in the Studio Theatre at the Horowitz Visual and Performing Arts Center, Howard Community College. Tickets are $22-$33, depending on day and time, with discounts for students and others available. Some performances offer "pay what you can" rates. For information and reservations, call 443-518-1500 or go to http://www.repstage.org.