Big Behn – Elements Theatre Company returns with a modern Restoration comedy

Phillip Van Nostrand photo
Phillip Van Nostrand photo

Ophra Behn holds a historical position as one of the first female English dramatists, a novelist, playwright and poet who was also once a spy for the monarchy. She’s not a household name, but her adventures in the court of Charles II makes for fine drama. In the hands and pen of contemporary playwright Liz Duffy Adams, Behn’s story results in the farcical “Or,” (the comma is intentional), a 2009 play set to open as part of Elements Theater Collective’s current season.

Sara Rademacher’s Elements brings theater to pop-up locations to put on their small-cast, minimal-set productions. For “Or,” they’ll be playing at Carpinteria’s Women’s Club, Java Station in Goleta, Santa Barbara’s Pescadrome, and many other locations, culminating in a final show at the Library’s Faulkner Gallery.

With the last productions involving contemporary costumes, to see actors Emily Jewell, Michael Bernard, and Stephanie “Babz” Farnum dressed up in Restoration outfits — especially Bernard in his long curly locks, looking very much like Charles II — marks this outing as an adventurous step-up.

“Yes, but it’s also very similar to our other productions,” Ms. Rademacher says. “It’s humorous, it has a great message, and takes under 90 minutes. But this time we actually have to have a backstage.”

“Or,” follows Behn (Ms. Jewell) in the course of one hectic evening as she tries to finish a play for the king. But there are constant interruptions from her new love, actress Nell Gwynne (Farnum), the king, and an old love from her spying days William Scott (Mr. Bernard), who may or may not be plotting to kill the king. It features plenty of sudden entrances and exits, quick changes, and a mix of period language and modern euphemisms.

A lot of the play is historically correct, and Ms. Rademacher feels post-play Q&A will be about breaking down what is factual and what is artistic license.

“There are influences from the 1960s throughout the show too, thematically,” she says. “Free love and revolution. It somehow works very well with the 1660s.”

“She’s a great character for me to sink my teeth into,” says Ms. Jewell, Ms. Rademacher’s collaborator on all the Elements shows, including acting and producing. “Aphra had a lot of different things going on. There’s so much history in her background, though the audience doesn’t have to know it to enjoy her.”

Mr. Bernard and Ms. Farnum were last seen in Lit Moon’s production of the “The Tempest,” which is where Ms. Rademacher saw them and invited them to audition. “There’s so many fantastic male actors in town for (Mr. Bernard’s) role, and great young women actors for (Ms. Farnum’s) role, too, but the two really stood out,” Ms. Rademacher says.

Miller James, of both Westmont and Santa Barbara Children’s Theater, has provided the elaborate costumes, bringing his wealth of knowledge and history to the production.

So far, Ms. Rademacher and Ms. Jewell are not missing the headaches of a permanent black box stage. All the owners of the pop-up locations from the previous production welcomed Elements back. The random locations keep the actors and the director on their toes. Last year, their performance at Casa Esperanza homeless shelter was interrupted by one tenant jumping onstage. The actors just have to adapt. Ms. Rademacher says the performances at Java Station were some of her favorites.

“It was an awesome vibe,” she says. “There were cars driving by and it was loud and hot. But it was a place people already feel comfortable in — it’s a coffee shop. So it felt like people were really invested in it.”

“It’s such a great dance,” Ms. Jewell says of the continually shifting location. “As an actor you’ll always trying to keep it new for the audience. So to have pieces that are different (from venue to venue) throws you right back in the moment.”

When: 8 p.m. tonight, 2 p.m. Feb. 10
Where: Various locations, check website.
Tonight’s performance: LBPS Events, 5390 Overpass Rd, Goleta
Cost: Free admission

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