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The life of Aphra Behn makes a debut on stage at UofSC

Pictured from left, Iullia Khamidullina as Lizzie Barry, Leslie Valdez as Aphra Behn, and Will Hollerung as Lord Arlington, the King’s Spymaster.
Pictured from left, Iullia Khamidullina as Lizzie Barry, Leslie Valdez as Aphra Behn, and Will Hollerung as Lord Arlington, the King’s Spymaster. Submitted

The University of South Carolina’s Department of Theatre and Dance, in partnership with Full Circle Productions, will present the world premiere of “Aphra Behn: Wanton. Wit. Woman.” Showtimes are 8 p.m. nightly April 21-28 at the Center for Performance Experiment. Tickets are $10.

“Aphra Behn” is the debut play by Mariah Anzaldo Hale, a theatrical costume designer with credits on Broadway and at theaters around the country.

The raucous and witty script tells the true story of Aphra Behn, the 17th-century English playwright, poet and novelist credited as being the first female to earn her living by writing. A fiercely independent spirit, Behn’s trailblazing exploits even saw her finding work as a spy for King Charles II during the Second Anglo-Dutch War.

Set against the backdrop of lawless 1660s London, the play charts Aphra’s growth into the revolutionary cultural figure she would become. Combining contemporary dialogue, movement, and music with fast-paced storytelling, “Aphra Behn: Wanton. Wit. Woman” compares women’s roles and relevance in society and the lengths they must go to succeed.

Hale says she began researching Aphra Behn in late 2017, and was struck by similarities between Behn’s bold stances and the fight for female equality today.

“She’s controversial as a proto-feminist because on the surface her plays were so exploitative of women,” Hale said, “but, if you really examine them, she turns the exploitation of women on its head and makes a point about it. She knew that plays had to be bawdy in order to have audiences, but she made a point with that bawdiness.”

Behn wrote over a dozen plays between 1670 and 1687, but it wasn’t until the publication of “The Lucky Chance” in 1686 that she used her real name, an audacious move that earned her critical and social derision. Hale dramatizes that crucial chapter of Behn’s career in the play.

“In order for women to make history they had to behave badly,” Hale said. “She forced her way into history by being a rule breaker.”

Hale worked with the production’s director, Lindsay Rae Taylor and UofSC theatre professor Robert Richmond to develop the script and this inaugural production.

Richmond said his goal for the play is to get it published and attract productions by regional theaters and other universities around the country. “Aphra Behn” also had a showing April 13 at Harbison Theatre in Irmo.

The cast includes MFA Acting students Leslie Valdez, Sean Ardor, and Iuliia Khamidullina; undergraduates William Hollerung, Reilly Lucas, and Susan Swavely; and Full Circle Productions company member Katrina Blanding.

Hale is quick to point out that while Behn’s story is set in the distant past, this telling of her story is anything but antiquated.

“It’s not a 17th-century piece. It’s not a comedy of manners. It’s raucous, it’s funny, it’s crazy. I call it a femme adventure,” she said. “It’s for all the ladies out there who will identify with her, and all the men who need to learn some lessons.”

The play contains adult themes that may not be appropriate for children.

If you go

“Aphra Behn: Wanton. Wit. Woman”

When: 8 p.m. April 21-28

Where: The Center for Performance Experiment, 718 Devine St.. The building is between Huger and Gadsden streets near the Colonial Life Arena.

Tickets: $10 each and available online at theatre.sc.edu or at the door.

Good to know: The play contains adult themes that may not be appropriate for children. Guests are asked to arrive early as seating is limited.

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