Who are you?
You can't be who you are claiming to be, so let me have a closer look.
What happens if the profession you've trained for your entire life is taken away from you by royal decree? Do you slink into the shadows a mere footnote to the fashionable conversations of the coffee houses? Or do you find the courage to adapt and change, finding your true self along the way.
That is the journey that takes place for lead character, Edward "Ned" Kynaston, in Jeffrey Hatcher's play Compleat Female Stage Beauty now being ably mounted at the Fells Point Corner Theatre in Baltimore, Maryland. Mr. Hatcher has fashioned an imagining of a major crossroads in the history of English theater, the first appearance of actresses upon the English stage. The theaters in England were closed by order of the Puritan government in 1642 and reopened upon the restoration of Charles II in 1660. Prior to that date no women had appeared on the common theatrical stage. Women did appear as part of court entertainments and had appeared on the stage in continental Europe since the at least the late 16th century.
Ned Kynaston trained to play the female roles and is a truimph as Desdemona in Othello for theatrical impresario, Thomas Betterton. The arrival on the scene at rival theater owner, Thomas Killigrew's stage of an actress, Margaret Hughes, in the same role causes a sensation. Threatened by the loss of his livelihood, Kynaston makes disastrous mistake one after the other including insulting Charles II's aspiring actress mistress, Nell Gwynn. This mistake leads to a royal decree that henceforth only women will be allowed to play the female roles in the theater. The loss of his career, his noble lover and a brutal attack leave Ned at a crossroads. Will he transform himself and in the process find the man that he's been successfully hiding all these years?
Under the capable direction of Sherrione Brown, Fells Point Corner Theatre has taken a very challenging play and mounted a wonderful production. The leading roles are strongly cast and the supporting players are almost equally as good. The small Fells Point Corner Theatre, tucked into the middle of a Baltimore neighborhood has its challenges. The period costuming is mostly borrowed, yet has a cohesion as if it had been created by the same designer. The scene changes are not as smooth as might happen on a professional stage with more resources. Lighting is limited and, in some cases, it affects the emotional moments on the stage. Despite these limitations, Compleat Female Stage Beauty is well worth seeking out to see the wonderful performances in a rarely produced, maturely themed play.
As Thomas Betterton, theatrical manager and leading male actor, Todd Krickler brings pathos to his torn impresario. He is Ned's boss, yet also a devoted friend. Mr. Krickler ranges easily from concerned friend to that of business man who must change with the times or be ruined.
Frank Vince, in the dual roles of Hyde, the disapproving butler, and Samuel Pepys, the famous diarist who is also our narrator has created two very distinctive characters. The only flaw that The Thespian had with his performance is his maddening ability to not stay in his light. The lighting designer has given him a beautiful spotlight for a lot of his narration and Mr. Vince manages to stay half in shadow. Find your light, sir and revel in it.
Ryan Airey slinks as the duplicitous George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham. He easily conveys a man more interested in preserving his image, especially at court, than his personal proclivities. Amongst the other courtiers we have Lady Meresvale and Miss Frayne, played by Andrea Bush and Ruta Kidolis. At first they appear to be the 17th century equivalent of groupies, yet there is a dark element which they both handle with aplomb. As the fop, Sir Charles Sedley, David Morey comes close to overdoing it, but the heightened performance works well for his character.
Phil Gallagher portrays the merry monarch, Charles II, with a delicious bit of whimsy. Whether indulging his mistress, or laying down the law, Mr. Gallagher navigates easily the duality of this complex monarch. Never once do you forget that under the sunny exterior lies a king who will be obeyed.
In the film version of the play, simply titled Stage Beauty, two of the female roles were combined. Here we see the playwright's original ideas for these two ladies, who both aspire to appear upon the stage. The wardrobe mistress and loyal friend, Maria, is the least developed of the parts, yet Stephanie Ranno brings a poignancy to this young woman. Maria desires the man she helps transform into a woman each performance, and yet, she also wishes she could perform on stage in those same roles and perform backstage with him in a romantic fantasy. Some moments are hindered by the lack of available lighting, where Maria is witness to events and the audience cannot clearly see her emotional reaction. Yet, Ms. Ranno finds the heart and soul of this character and makes the audience sympathetic to her desires.
In the other role the film combined, that of Margaret Hughes, who historically is one of the women credited with being the first woman to appear upon the English stage, Kerry Brady, has the stage presence to make you believe she is a leading lady. She does well demonstrating the characters growth as a woman and as an actress. Ms. Brady has the willful exterior of the haughty actress and colors it with the insecurities of a woman who knows that she is but a shadow of the performer she has replaced. Throughout her performance we in the audience grow with her and revel in her triumphant final transformation.
Nearly stealing every moment she appears on the stage is Ann Turiano as Charles II's most famous mistress, Nell Gwynn. Whether gamely appearing on stage in very little clothing or twisting a King around her little finger, or, the very implied talented little tongue, Ms. Turiano is an absolute delight. She is exuberant and plays Nell as a woman who has been dealt an amazing opportunity in life and is determined to live her good fortune to the fullest.
Ms. Turiano is reason enough to see this production, but there is an equally vibrant performance from Tim Elliott as the conflicted Ned Kynaston. Mr. Elliott is more than believable as the man with a talent for playing a woman to the point that the real man inside has gotten lost. The character does some very unlikeable things, yet it is to Mr. Elliott's credit that the audience rarely loses sympathy for this character. His descent from the heights of fame and desirability into a world of brutality and depravity is harrowing to observe. It is through his skillful performance that we embrace Ned's faults and root for him to succeed. The character grows and changes through the circumstances that have been forced on Ned in his professional and personal life. We must travel this journey through Mr. Elliott's handsome performance in order for the real stage beauty within the character to emerge.
A word of caution: Compleat Female Stage Beauty concerns very mature subject matter and contains instances of partial nudity, profanity and sexual situations. It is intended for mature audiences.
Compleat Female Stage Beauty will be presented by Fells Point Corner Theatre in Baltimore, Maryland through April 10, 2011. For tickets and other information please visit www.fpct.org.