“Pleasure,” is the one word actor Kittson O’Neill uses to describe the “heart” of Liz Duffy Adams’ Barrymore Recommended production of Or,in which O’Neill plays the pioneering female playwright Aphra Behn (1640-89) a wise-cracking poet with men and women under her thumb.
Or, is the second Hedgerow winter show in a row to be Barrymore Recommended. Last year’s On the Verge received the same accolade, which also featured O’Neill as the director, Aaron Cromie, director of Or, as scenic designer for Verge, and Brock D. Vickers, who played multiple parts as The Man.
“We are very pleased to receive this recognition,” Artistic Director Jared Reed said. “It’s a testament to the hard work, art and skill of this team, the second year they’ve been so honored, and to Theatre Philadelphia’s acknowledgement of Hedgerow as a professional theatre.”
Adams’ witty farce is set in the late 1600s, after King Charles II (Vickers) had been restored to the throne following the Cromwell era. It follows a day in the life of Behn, a poet who served as a spy for the king, whose failure to pay her lands her in debtors’ prison. Following her release, she has a chance to launch a career as a playwright, but only if she can finish her first play by the next morning. That job is made difficult by a nonstop string of visitors: her royal lover, the king; cross-dressing actress Nell Gwynne (Bloechl); and former lover, double-agent William Scot (Vickers), who may be involved in a plot to kill Charles. She’s faced with the challenge of trying to save the king, resisting Nell’s charms, winning William a pardon, and meeting her deadline.
Vickers as William Scott“It’s very rare as an actress to play a character who is driven by her sexual desires and ultimately triumphs because of them,” O’Neill mused. “She’s basically the anti-Blanche [from A Streetcar Named Desire]. Liz’s take on Aphra dives deeply into the dilemma of being a woman who loves her life, her lovers, and her freedom, but lives in a world that is constantly boxing her into a role she just doesn’t fit. That’s a recipe for tragedy, but in this play it’s a farce.”
Behn (b. c.1640, d. April 1689) is a figure shrouded in mystery. Next to nothing is known about her early life, which is possibly a direct result of Behn intentionally obscuring her own past from the public and from history. Biographer Janet Todd said of Behn that she “has a lethal combination of obscurity, secrecy and staginess which makes her an uneasy fit for any narrative, speculative or factual. She is not so much a woman to be unmasked as an unending combination of masks”. Born to a baron or a barber, a colonel or a cooper, what we do know about Behn is that she worked as a spy for King Charles II, and shortly after became the first English female playwright of renown.
Asked to describe the play, O’Neill said, “‘Or,’ is smart and entertaining. It gives you a belly laugh and turns on a light bulb. If you bring a sense of fun and curiosity to the show, which is exactly what Hedgerow’s audiences bring, you will love it. It reminds us that new plays are fun, history is fun, ladies are fun. Comedy is the secret weapon of big ideas. If I told you you were going to see a feminist play about a 17th-century woman playwright you would probably fake a stomach ache. If I told you you were going to watch a sex-farce crossed with a political spy thriller you would hop right in the car.”
Allison Bloechl as Nell Gwynne and O’Neill as AhpraThe year 1666 came during a time of turmoil for Behn and for England itself. In September of that year, the Great Fire of London burned for four days, resulting in the destruction of over 13,000 homes and nearly 100 churches and cathedrals. Two years earlier, Aphra lost her husband during the final outbreak of the Great Plague in London, though there is reason to suspect that she separated from him and took advantage of the high death toll to recreate herself as a widow instead of a divorcee. In 1665, the Second Anglo-Dutch War broke out – one of four wars fought between England and the Netherlands in the 16th and 17th centuries – and Behn found herself hired by King Charles II to work as a spy in Antwerp under the pseudonym “Astrea”, with the intention of turning the British expatriate and son of a regicide William Scot into a double agent for the crown. Though exact details of the events that surrounded “Astrea” and “Celadon” (Behn’s pseudonym for Scot in her correspondences) remain murky, there is evidence that Behn’s attempt at intrigue failed, and Scot betrayed her to the Dutch.
As for the “Merry Monarch”, King Charles II. After the execution of his father Charles I at the end of the English Civil War, Charles II was declared king, but was quickly denied power as the Commonwealth of England seized it, leaving England without a monarch for the first and only time in its history.
The Cromwell Regime ran the Commonwealth from 1653-1659, beginning with Oliver Cromwell being named Lord Protector of England and ending at the overthrow of Cromwell’s son, Richard, in 1659. Though Oliver Cromwell served as leader of a supposed English Republic, he was afforded many of the same luxuries as the royals that predated him, living in the same palaces and holding sole power over the government – even being offered the title of King, which he turned down.
Cromwell’s rule over the Commonwealth came along with many reforms based in his Puritan beliefs, which included stricter observances of Sunday, greater punishments for swearing, and making adultery a capital offence. Further acts were passed to punish actors, minstrel performers, fiddlers, and other “vagrants”, as well as gamblers with the severity of rogues and thieves. No stores or manufacturers could do business on a Sunday, and even travel was forbidden without a writ from a justice attesting to its necessity.
In 1660, Charles II was reinstated as king, and the reformation period began. It was under his rule that Charles reopened the theatres that Cromwell had closed, allowing the King’s and Duke’s companies to form, and allowing both companies to hire women. Nell Gwyn was a young daughter of a brothel madam, who sold oranges at performances at the King’s Company theatre. Within a span of a few years, Gwyn became the lead actress and most famous comedic performer in the country at the time. Her fame earned her the attention of the King, eventually becoming one of his many mistresses and bearing him two illegitimate sons. Gwyn is hailed as something of a folk heroine, an embodiment of rags-to-riches, having been born poor and fatherless under the strict Cromwell regime only to rise to fame and money through her talent as an actress, and later by becoming lover to the king himself.
Blog by Brock D. Vickers
Riddle me this, “Who is the world’s greatest detective?” Born out of the mind of Edgar Allan Poe, the detective story has captured audiences’ minds since its inception. Putting the pieces together and solving a puzzle is what draws us in. Are we smart enough to solve the riddle? Can we figure out the mystery before “The World’s Greatest Detective?”
The title, shared by the likes of Hercule Poirot, Sherlock Holmes, or the enigmatic “L,” is like a challenge issued to the audience. Each of these characters has captured the limelight at some point, whether it is with BBC’s fantastic productions of Poirot or Sherlock, or even animé’s binge-watched Death Note.
Yet, since Auguste Dupin there has been one detective that has attracted more attention than any other. His resources are limitless, his story tragic, and his rogues’ gallery is unrivaled.
He was born for “Detective Comics,” and has been referred to as “The Dark Knight,” “The Caped Crusader,” and of course “The World’s Greatest Detective,” but is most commonly referred to as Batman. Whatever you know him as, or wherever you know him from, Batman is proof you don’t need superpowers to be a hero.
The Dark Knight is an American icon. He’s the only human among the gods of the Justice League (and also the man who destroys it). He’s taken down monstrous deities, tyrannical conquerors, terrorists, and every form of supervillain from those with one bad day to those with a lifetime of bad days. He’s the man who defeated Superman: “I want you to remember…my hand…at your throat…I want…you to remember…the one man who beat you.”
In 1939, after the success of Superman, Action Comics prompted editors of National Publications (the future DC Comics) to request more superheroes. In response, Bob Kane created “the Bat-Man” with collaborator Bill Finger to contrast the original golden boy. Created as a combination of Zorro, Dracula, and the Shadow, Kane and Finger’s creation has become one of the greatest comic-book characters to ever don a cape and cowl.
After witnessing the death of his parents, American billionaire playboy and philanthropist Bruce Wayne, swears vengeance against injustice and trains himself physically and mentally, crafting a bat-inspired persona to instill fear in criminals.
Unlike most superheroes, Batman possesses no superpowers; rather, he relies on his intellect, physical prowess, martial arts abilities, detective skills, and indomitable will to defeat his foes. Like Sherlock before him, Bruce sharpens his senses to the point of medical precision and makes himself more than man. He creates a symbol people can believe in.
Batman gained his own comic-book title in 1940. Though more of a superhero now, Batman started out as a true detective. As the decades rolled on, new interpretations of the character evolved into the idea he is today.
The late 1960s Batman television series starring Adam West used a campaesthetic. The dark soul of the character returned in 1986 with Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, and Warner Bros.‘ live-action Batman feature films. From Tim Burton and Michael Keaton’s rubber-suited Knight to Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale’s realistic anti-hero, the Caped Crusader has become the most profitable hero of all time.
The character has set the standard for video games with Rocksteady’s Arkham series, as well as provided the model for how to make an action cartoon with the Emmy Award-winning television show Batman: The Animated Series.
He ranks second on IGN’s Top 100 Comic Book Heroes (behind the honorary position held by the original superhero, Superman), and yet holds no powers. The secret to Batman’s draw is simple: he’s human. He has been broken by Bane and tempted by Poison Ivy, but ultimately if the Dark Knight were to miss his grapple, or be clipped by an Omega-Beam, he would go down for the count. He is fallible and mortal, just like us. There is no token weakness like wood or kryptonite, because every time the Dark Knight rises he is vulnerable.
After the Green Lantern flies away to save the galaxy or Flash reverses time, what are we left with? It is Bruce’s humanity, his weakness, that draws us in. He is a flawed orphan, who has dedicated his life to an insurmountable task. The very idea of Batman is the essence of character.
In the theatre, we love flawed people. We do not go to the theatre to see people live through a good day, or watch them as things go right. We go to the theatre to see what people do while under duress. What fun is there is watching someone cope? We want to see the struggle. Bruce gives us the struggle. We know that every time he goes out on patrol, he is risking it all.
Batman is the most feared superhero of all, because he represents the absolute pinnacle of human achievement: the complete package and the ideal of what we all could be.
Always five steps ahead of his foes, he’s a brilliant detective, a world class athlete, and a master strategist, but in his crusade against injustice, there are two questions that drive this character: how far will he go and can he maintain his humanity?
Something is always at stake for the Dark Knight, and the beauty of the canon of stories from the earliest iterations by Kane and Finger to the most recent rendition by Zack Snyder, our hero is always in conflict. He has lost his parents, his lovers, his allies, his friends, and in some cases he’s even lost his own mind, but each and every time we see Batman pull through, we feel the catharsis of our own humanity. We believe in ourselves, because if Batman can do it, then why can’t we?
Timeless jokes come to life on the Hedgerow Theatre stage when The Servant of Two Masters gets to work from May 26 to June 26 in director Aaron Cromie’s world premiere adaptation of the Carlo Goldoni classic farce.
Producing Artistic Director Jared Reed plays Truffaldino, joined by Hedgerow Company members Zoran Kovcic as Pantalone; Allison Bloechl as Beatrice; Mark Swift as Silvio; Susan Wefel as the innkeeper, Brighella; Brock D. Vickers as Florindo; Josh Portera as Dr. Lombardi, Silvio’s father, and also the second waiter and porter; and Shaun Yates as the first waiter and porter. The cast is completed with guest artist Sarah Knittel as the maid Smeraldina; and guest artist Madalyn St. John as Clarice, Pantalone’s daughter and Silvio’s betrothed.
“This form still works today because it’s how we still work today. Actors like Robin Williams are given a script and make it their own, they riff, they bring their own take to the character and give the world something new about it. We recognize these characters as a culture. We say, ‘That guy’s funny’,and, ‘That guy gets mad,’ so let’s put them in a room and see what comes out. The form lives on because it is so versatile and relevant,” said Reed.
Goldoni first wrote The Servant of Two Masters in 1746. His original version was based on improvisation, but he revised it to make the characters more complex and had it printed in 1753. It retains, however, many of the traditional characteristics of its origin, such as physical comedy and general ongoing silliness, enhanced by clever wordplay. “It’s cartoons….It’s Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. We recognize folly and we laugh at it,” said Reed.
The play opens at the home of Venetian merchant Pantalone with the celebration of his daughter Clarice’s engagement to her beloved Silvio. The festivities are interrupted by the arrival of Beatrice, a lady of Turin disguised as her twin brother Federigo–who was originally betrothed to Clarice before losing his life in a duel with Beatrice’s lover, Florindo–in the hopes of deceiving them long enough to collect the dowry owed to her brother. In the meantime, Florindo arrives in Venice after fleeing Turin to escape punishment for Federigo’s death. The title character is Truffaldino, a servant with an insatiable appetite who wants to double his intake of food, so he secretly takes jobs with both Beatrice and Florindo. He shuttles back and forth between assignments, receiving letters, messages, and money for “his master”, although he’s never sure which one they’re for. The escalating misunderstandings lead to multiple comical complications before all is resolved.
“Aaron and I were talking about what we could do with the talents of the company, and what we could create. It came up, with the success of One Man, Two Guvnors [Richard Bean’s acclaimed update of the play], ‘why not do the original Goldoni?’” said Reed.
The Commedia dell’arte (literally, “comedy of the profession”) was concerned mostly with tangled love intrigues and clever tricks to get money or outwit some simpleton. There were plotting maids, bragging captains, aged fathers and wily widows, all archetypes we recognize in an instant.
“People find truth done in a new and fresh way, funny… Comedy is truth you didn’t expect to have happen. I’ve always thought about it as ‘Comedy is tragedy viewed through the prism of time,” said Reed.
They’re directed by Cromie, who helmed the critically acclaimed Or, this past winter and has adapted the original Goldoni. The self-described multidisciplinary theatre artist is perfectly suited for the job, having studied at the Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theatre in California, and been involved in three previous productions of this play.
“Funny is funny no matter the era. So we recognize the connections of comedy, improv, and mask work and the stories come from a place of love. I’ve dedicated a part of my creative life to it, and the stories you can tell are endless,” said Cromie.
The improvised Comedy of Masks, with a history that goes back to the days of ancient Rome, was frequently coarse and obscene. In the early eighteenth century there was an established English theatre and French theatre, but no real Italian theatre, as Goldoni himself observed. Goldoni made it his mission to give an artistic form to the spoken comedy.
“I’ve always had a love of this style. It’s the birth of cartoons: it’s fast-paced, it’s silly, it’s joyful and it’s meant to entertain people, and to celebrate our folly as human beings,” said Cromie.
The four traditional masks which appear in his plays are Pantalone, Il Dottore, Brighella and Arlecchino. Pantalone is the old Venetian merchant, wearing the dress of the sixteenth century. Traditionally he was senile and lascivious; Goldoni made him a model of respectability, while never losing sight of his comic character. Il Dottore represents the old man of the educated classes; he is a Doctor of Law of the University of Bologna, pompous and pedantic, and prone to bursts of irrelevant Latin. Brighella and Arlecchino come from Bergamo and represent the two types of servant, knave and fool. Truffaldino is also from Bergamo and is a variation of the typical stock character Arlecchino.
The Commedia style of improvisation required actors able to make a serious study of their parts; these disciplined comedians changed forever the standards of acting. The best of them stamped their characters with individuality, freshness and brilliance, and gave value to pieces which often were otherwise worthless. The Commedia dell’arte introduced the professional actor into Europe.
“Comedy is scientific. You have to have the timing and control over the audience to set up the beat, to set up the laugh. A painter has the luxury of painting what he or she feels, but with comedy we have to keep the audience in mind. We do the things that make us laugh, but we have to keep the pattern in mind: the content: the joke. We have to surprise them. We have to bring them truth at an extremity under pressure,” said Cromie.
Goldoni created a new form of comedy by taking the best elements of the improvised style of commedia dell’arte and adding witty dialogue in longer, more complete stories. Commedia dell’arte was primarily short scenarios with stock characters, featuring love triangles, mistaken identities, and disguises. It was the source of slapstick, with lots of physical comedy and an actual “slapstick” used to create a slapping sound.
As a boy, a toy theatre was the Goldoni’s favourite plaything, and plays his favourite reading. He was sent to school at Rimini and escaped back to Venice with a theatrical company; he later studied law at Pavia, but was expelled from his college because of a satire he wrote. He took his degree in law at Padua in 1731 and practised as a lawyer for some time at Venice. But the theatre always interested him more than the law, and from 1734 onwards he wrote regularly for the stage.
The importance of these typical stage characters, which enjoyed at least four centuries of popularity on the European boards, lies in the influence they had on the famous dramatists that followed. Already one can catch a breath of the Shakespearean comedies in the names of the heroes; and one can see that Molière, both as actor and author, learned much from this branch of Italian art. Its influence passed through Holberg into Denmark, where it became a powerful factor in shaping the romantic drama of a later age.
“It’s infectious and it’s fun. Maybe some kid will see this and want to make his own play, with his own jokes. So for the time being we’re telling the story and hopefully somebody will laugh and somebody will be inspired by what we do,” said Cromie.
Brock D. Vickers
This is the beginning of a new part of life: a habit: an idea: a routine to dig at what makes a man great.