Long before Tina Fey or Nora Ephron thrilled audiences in the historically male-dominated screenwriting world, a 17th-century woman opened doors for female creatives.
Aphra Behn is known as one of the world’s first professional female writers and playwrights. She is best known for her two-part play The Rover and the 1688 novel Oroonoko, the story of an African prince who is tricked into slavery.
The British writer also worked as a spy for King Charles II in the Flemish Belgian city of Antwerp. Behn’s exciting life has become the subject of several contemporary retellings, including Christopher VanderArk’s 2015 play [exit Mrs. Behn] and Chris Braak’s 2014 Empress of the Moon: The Lives of Aphra Behn.
Oklahoma Shakespeare in the Park (OSP) performs a modern account of Behn’s life with comedy-drama Or, which opens Thursday and runs through July 23 on the theater company’s Paseo Arts District indoor stage at 2920 Paseo St.
Director Laura Standley is also a theater instructor at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts and often teaches The Rover to her students, who are always surprised to learn about a female playwright in Behn’s time. Standley said Behn’s pioneering story is one that appeals to people today and will for generations to come.
“Aphra is a fascinating character and, for women’s theater artists, an inspiration,” she said.
Female playwrights were not only rare in 17th-century England; their very existence was considered scandalous. Behn showed courage in pursuing her craft, which is part of the reason Standley chose to direct Or,.
“The story of a woman who was able to figure out a way to make that happen during that time is really fascinating,” she said. “And the way the play approaches it is so fun.”
Or, written by Liz Duffy Adams, opens with Behn (portrayed by OSP founder and executive director Kathryn McGill) in a debtor’s prison. She has recently returned to London from working as a spy, and Charles II (Will Rogers) has been unable to pay Behn for her espionage. Those who don’t pay their debts are arrested.
The king soon works out her release and tries to set her up with a place where she can complete the play that would establish her as a serious playwright.
After moving, she meets actress Nell Gwynne (Ashley Frisbee). Known historically as a mistress of Charles II, Gwynne’s presence, combined with many other factors, leaves Behn distracted and pressed to meet her deadline.
“The bulk of the action is this evening in Aphra’s life where she is struggling to find a space for writing and juggling all the other things that are in her life,” Standley said. “All these problems happen, but it’s really fun the way it ends up turning out.”
Standley first heard about Or, through McGill and later from some of her students who produced the play for another theater company. When she read it for the first time last fall, she knew it would be perfect for OSP. It also would provide an opportunity to introduce more strong female roles into OSP’s lineup, which she said can sometimes be a challenge.
Standley said, though Or,’s storytelling features touches of romance and more drama, the play is truly a comedy.
“On the surface of the action, it kind of lays out like a 1960s sex farce,” she said. “It sort of has that door-slamming, people-hiding atmosphere, and yet it also has this romance to it. Then it has these serious scenes, so it’s like [Duffy Adams] has taken that ’60s doors farce and turned it on its head.”
McGill has said she has long wanted OSP to produce one of Behn’s actual plays. Standley said Or, should act as a good primer for audiences. After they learn more about who the playwright is, she said, they will be eager to learn more.
Standley first directed McGill last year during OSP’s Scenes from an Execution. Standley has a history with the company, appearing in her first OSP show, Twelfth Night, in the 1990s when OSP still performed at Edmond’s Hafer Park.
She said she loves working with McGill and first saw her act during one of OSP’s Hafer Park productions of Antony and Cleopatra.
“I feel like Oklahoma City doesn’t realize what an amazing talent they have in Kathryn,” she said.
It is appropriate that McGill, the female founder of the OSP theater company who has maintained the organization for more than three decades, portrays one of theater history’s groundbreaking women.
McGill is actually one of three actors in OSP’s Or,. Rogers, who starred as Benedick in its 2016 production of Much Ado About Nothing, and Frisbee, a recent University of Central Oklahoma graduate who performed in Scenes from an Execution with McGill last year, perform three roles each.
Standley said the versatile cast is part of what makes Or, a pleasure to direct.
“It’s such a nice cast,” she said. “I always think that about 90 percent of my job is casting. I feel like with this cast I have the perfect people.”
8 p.m. Thursday-Sunday and July 20-23, 2 p.m. Sunday and July 23
Oklahoma Shakespeare in the Park
2920 Paseo St.
Print headline: Flipped script, Oklahoma Shakespeare in the Park’s comedy-drama Or, showcases pioneering playwright Aphra Behn.