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A CurtainUp Review
The Compleat Female Stage Beauty
The Philadelphia Theatre Company celebrates the opening of its 25th Anniversary season with a rousing production of Jeffrey Hatcher's Compleat Female Stage Beauty at the charming old Plays & Players Theatre. Hatcher's plays tend to connect to historical events, and this one is no exception. He decided to write about the English Restoration and the appearance of women on the stage when he came across the story of Edward Kynaston (pronounced Kinniston), a male actor who specialized in female roles, while reading Samuel Pepy's diary. As he explained in an after-performance discussion he wanted to "come in off the side," writing not from the point of view of new women actresses, but rather from the vantage point of a man who was displaced.
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Charles II has decreed that women can now play women's roles on the stage. It is a dire time for male actors who specialize in female roles. Actor Edward Kynaston's (Brandon Demery) entire identity is tied up in his rendering of the "compleat female stage beauty." Margaret Hughes (Jenny Bacon), an actress, has stolen Kynaston's Desdemona. Not only has she absconded with the role, but she has imitated his every gesture.
Kynaston's fashionable world collapses, his lover leaves, he is ridiculed and beaten. He doesn't know who he is anymore. He pays some dues. Questions of identity abound. Charles II (Robert Stanton) states: "I make no distinction between the part and its player, and neither, I think, does anyone else." Kynaston's lover, the duke, tells him that when they made love, he was making love to Desdemona or Cleopatra. Kynaston was these characters to him. The play thus plays with male/female roles and actor/person identity issues. At one point after he has banned the appearance of male actors in female roles, we encounter Charles II in a palace masque in a dress.
Kynaston encounters huge obstacles as he attempts to transform himself from a female stage beauty into a male actor. His confusion is painful to watch as he tries to play Othello for the court but cannot do it without intimations of Desdemona in his every gesture. The once proud "stage beauty" is reduced to burlesque theatres. In one scene the modern audience, cast as the burlesque theater audience, is implicated in the masculine ideology which sees women as objects in the theater and in society. Our suggested complicity is uncomfortable enough to createa successful theatrical moment.
Parts of Othello (5.2) are played again and again. It's all very complex -- today's version of a "Restoration" production of an Elizabethan play.
In one key playing of the scene Kynaston instructs Margaret Hughes in a naturalistic acting style that would not have been seen before Garrick's day. Anachronism notwithstanding, it is doubly theatrical to watch their roles within roles. It's a pivotal moment in which Kynaston, in teaching an actress how to act like a real woman, finally learns to act like a man. In coaching his nemesis he learns to survive. The language of the play is enormously entertaining. Modern expressions blend with those of an earlier time. The writing is mature. Not needing to make every line funny, it has the confidence to bide its time, which results in delightful dialogue. It is not too too cute. Thank you. If I want a sitcom, I'll watch TV.
The characters are well drawn and the acting serves them well. Lauren Ward, fresh and bright, is the charming Maria who, as Kynaston's admirer, provides a nice balance to other less serious women. Jenny Bacon's Margaret Hughes is quite remarkable, as is Brandon Demery's Kynaston. Stephen DeRosa as Samuel Pepys delivers a truly memorable and energetic performance. Tom Nelis is priceless (or should I say 'pritheleth') as Sir Charles Sedley, a foppish antagonist, and Steven Skybell as Betterton and Robert Stanton as Charles II do their parts more than justice. Glenn Howerton is a studly Duke of Buckingham. Marcy Harriell is an absolutely delicious and comic Nell Gwynn. Her lively presence lights up the stage. There is a good bit of skin exposed in the production, especially Ms Harriell's.
The staging is simple--a wooden stage built on the stage and a few pieces of prop furniture that come and go, notably a huge colorful painting, chandeliers, and the Desdemona bed. Otherwise furniture is neither needed nor missed. The stark stage is enhanced by the wonderful colors of the costumes and the lighting. Desdemona's bed, constantly being made up or taken down, at times appears sculptural in soft light and shadow. And there is gorgeous, simple lighting for a love scene that makes me believe that less is more.
This tactile interlude is not without its pathos, as an attempted initiation into hetero-sex is ambushed by a thoughtless question. The lighting is as much a star of the scene as the actors. The music complements the action so well throughout that I scarcely noticed it. To my mind that is successful non-digetic music.
One distraction on the evening that I was at the theater was a scene during which rather prodigious amounts of "steam" from a steam bath enveloped the actors in an opaque cloud. It then poured over the audience in the orchestra to a muffled chorus of coughing and fretting. This "glitch" notwithstanding, a happy combination of Mr. Hatcher's writing, Mr. Bobbie's dynamic direction and John Lee Beatty's design has resulted in a play that moves almost like a film with fluid transitions and lean scenes.
Finally there's a wonderful sort of meshing of Othello, with which we have become quite familiar, and this play's "reality." The play also has a rhymed epilogue. What more could you ask for? It makes for a truly satisfying evening of theatre. Hatcher is currently working on the screenplay, so you can also look forward to the movie version.