From Mad Men to 18th-century England.
Mon Nov 2 2009
Maggie Siff hesitates over her tea. Does the sloe-eyed actress best known for her roles on the cable series Mad Men and Sons of Anarchy—but no stranger to the New York stage—really want to be quoted on the differences between male and female playwrights? Siff is currently portraying Aphra Behn, the Restoration-era writer credited as being the first professional female playwright, in Liz Duffy Adams’s frothy, sex-positive farce Or, (the comma is part of the title). So now would seem to be the time.
“Doing material written by men—and it’s true in all the media, from television to plays—I find myself feeling a lot like, Oh, God, this again?” Siff admits. “Am I going to play a baby-hungry woman again? Am I going to play the girlfriend/sidekick? Or like in Mamet, am I going to be the evil cipher?” (Siff has done Oleanna twice.) She’s also heard concerns that, as a performer with a strong spine and a thoughtful mien, she might be considered too “strident” or “edgy” or “mean.”
“That’s just never an issue with a female playwright or a female director,” Siff says, alluding to her collaborations with Rinne Groff (The Ruby Sunrise at the Public Theater), Rebecca Gilman (Dollhouse, an update of Ibsen at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre) and now Adams and director Wendy McClellan on Or, opening at the Women’s Project this week. “With female playwrights, I feel like there’s a deep understanding of my nature, inherently in the writing.”
Or,’s female nature encompasses both smarts and sex. Adams’s historical play celebrates not only Behn’s pioneering career, which Virginia Woolf famously memorialized in A Room of One’s Own (“All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn”), but also the side of the writer’s tumultuous life that Woolf dismissed as “shady and amorous.” Behn worked as a royal spy, did time in debtors’ prisons and carried on affairs with starlets as well as with powerful male patrons. Or, depicts Behn’s struggle—mostly over the course of one zany, eventful afternoon—to leave espionage and prison behind and carve out space to follow her passions as a woman and as a writer.
“What Aphra goes through just to be an artist, and how many balls get thrown up in the air that she has to keep going...it seems like such the woman’s dilemma,” says director McClellan. “It’s such the artist’s dilemma, actually.”
But there’s no ignoring that this juggling act has disproportionately bedeviled female artists. Though Behn was unquestionably a trailblazer, she didn’t exactly usher in a stampede of women writers.
“The history of feminism is a history of renaissances and dark ages,” says Adams. “It’s a never-ending cycle of forward momentum followed by lost ground. Things get a little better each time the wheel comes around, but the wheel never stops turning. There’s always hope for a new golden age.”
If Or, feels hopeful or particularly relevant, that’s in part because Adams has highlighted a felicitous historic parallel: between the boundary-breaking bohemians of the 1660s and the Dionysian flower children of the 1960s.
“Everything has a 1660s shape, but a 1960s pattern,” says McClellan about Andrea Lauer’s costumes. “So Diane von Furstenberg’s wrap influences the Restoration shape of the gowns.” More to the point, Siff notes: “Liz wants all the characters in this play to be like rock stars. Her conceit is that they’re all fabulous.”
In other words, if Adams set out to pay tribute to Behn (“she ought to be one of those beacons that shines through the centuries and is taught in schools”), she has written an Aphra-disiac valentine, not a stodgy bio-play. “Aphra was bawdy and honest, and in the play she writes and thinks and talks a lot about sex,” Siff says. Alongside an attractive cast that includes Andy Paris and Kelly Hutchison, Siff’s beautiful, brainy Behn should have no trouble reminding us of the playwright’s true priorities—which she herself claimed to be “pleasure and poetry.” In an ideal world, such pursuits know no gender.
Or, is playing at Women’s Project at the Julia Miles Theater through Nov 22.