Reviewed by Michael J. Opperman
In Compleat Female Stage Beauty, Vaughn inhabits Edward Kynaston, the most celebrated actor in London in the 1660s. Under makeup & wigs, Kynaston plays female parts. The audiences applaud his Desdemona, wanting her(his) resurrection more than the final scene of the play. The Interregnum is over; Charles II has reopened the theaters, and only men are allowed to play women’s roles. Women, by law, are not even allowed to appear onstage.
Thriving on the adoration, Kynaston wallows in hubris, miscalculating the tolerance of scheming aristocrats and the speed at with the mores are changing. And there, as Shakespeare writes, is the rub. The appearance on stage of a woman playing a woman is met with titillation and, largely through the intercession of Charles II (Erik Hoover), both societal and legal acceptance. This reversal proves the unmaking of Kynaston.
In a time when theater is underfunded, under-attended and usually a labor of love, just the act of putting on a play is heroic. I always dread writing the review of a production that I think is not wholly successful. There is much to recommend about this production of Compleat Female Stage Beauty. The conceit is excellent, much of the writing is incisive, and the acting is energetic.
My frustrations are predominantly caused by the play itself. The narrative can veer off, scattershot with a dulled hierarchy that muddles the focus of the play. There is an attempt to give emotional prominence to a number of threads and intrigues that could have been excised. For example, there is the thread of Maria, Kynaston’s dresser (solidly performed by Teresa Marie Doran). The beginning of the play draws attention to her aspirations to be an actor and her infatuation with Kynaston. She is then given scant attention until needed as a deus ex machina to save Kynaston (in a tavern scene that seemed awkward and out of place in the play). Then, following a provocative scene that interrogates gender and sexuality, she is exiled and forgotten.
The relationship between Kynaston and his rival Margaret (Jane Froiland), which is ripe with dramatic possibility, is buried throughout much of the play until it’s resuscitated for a moving and nuanced denouement. In a play where everything is important, nothing is important.
Froiland is tasked with the difficult job of playing a bad actor for most of the play; she performs this believably, but really shines when she begins the rapid ascendancy to becoming a good actor. Hoover’s Charles II leans toward caricature in the first act, but develops a compelling complexity in the first scene of the second act. The interpretation of Kynaston’s sexuality seems more muddied than nuanced. In addition to an affecting relationship with Thomas Betterton (Sean Byrd), a court frequenter; there is the suggestion of romance/prospective sexual congress with both Margaret and Maria. Both fizzle, but in only modestly explored ways.