Ah, the power of the mistress! A power that in our day and age has all but disappeared. But in Jeffrey Hatcher's ribald and poignant new play, "Compleat Female Stage Beauty" the power of sex affecting politics is awesome. For, were it not for Nell Gwynn, King Charles II's nubile, little guttersnipe of a mistress having aspirations of playing on the stage, the course of theatrical herstory may have been very different. Unlike a Monica Lewinsky scandal, in which politicians can be disgraced and their indiscretions made public fun of, the situation here reflects the good old days, in which monarchs and despots were expected to have a little something on the side. Miss Gwynn, that little something, convinces Charlie the King to allow women to play on the stage. (Up until this time, the Church in England found it sinful for women to appear on the stage and thus created a market for adroit actors to play the feminine roles.) But Charles II goes a little further, and in so allowing women to enter the theatrical arena, he disallows men to play women at all.
So, into this theatrical whirlwind is tossed our leading man, one, Edward Kynaston, a star for his feminine portrayals. Being too arrogant and nearsighted to see the wave of the future, Mr. Kynaston does not befriend Mrs. Margaret Hughes, the first female to grace an English stage. Nor does he befriend her lisping, foppish lover, Lord Sedley. He even manages to insult Nell Gwynn, and that is a fateful error. Beaten by Lord Sedley's thugs he is forced from the stage for several months. Upon his return, Charles II's decree has become law. And Mr. Kynaston is no longer in demand anywhere. He starts a downward descent to drunkenness and self-loathing. But the play does not end there. If you know your theatrical history, then you'll know what becomes of Edward Kynaston. It's all right there in Mr. Pepys' famous diary, for he is the narrator of the piece.
Director Walter Bobbie, known for his prowess as an award-winning director of musicals, provides many theatrical touches that make the play vibrate with life. A naked girl on a swing (well, she does carry a shield most of the time), a king in a ball gown, a fop in a very tall wig, chandeliers that fly in and out, effortlessly and boldly ornate costumes that contrast against the simplicity of the set. My favorite scene recreates a primitive music hall in a bawdy tavern. A dirty, white curtain is lit from behind with red light. A very hairy, bare-chested gentleman is the master of ceremonies as our fallen protagonist sings a song about a fellow who has been castrated. It is at once hysterically funny and at the same time hopelessly pathetic. We are torn between laughter and helpless empathy for Mr. Kynaston. It is not often that a play twists your emotions into such a state.
Another notable scene is where Mr. Kynaston has acquiesced to coach the novice Mrs. Hughes as Desdemona (Mr. Kynaston's signature role). In a most comical and poignant turn, he helps her overcome her "artifice," as he himself comes to realize the true nature of acting.
The entire cast is wonderful. Notably, Jenny Bacon as Mrs. Hughes,Brandon Demery as Edward Kynaston, Lauren Ward as Maria and Tom Nelis as Sir Charles Sedley.
It is a well known fact that theatre folk love stories about theatre folk. And this is a "theatre story" that is very theatrically told. So if you have a penchant for the theatre, or are merely hopelessly addicted to it, you will enjoy this very arch, historical retelling of the birth of the Restoration theatre.
For tickets call: (215)735-0631 or log on to Philadelphia Theatre Company's Website at:
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