If there was ever a time for a bit of cheek, it’s now.
We could all use some impudent humor, especially of the female variety. And there’s no better place than the august Folger Theatre, where the bawdy, trailblazing she-ro Nell Gwynn is sassing up the joint with Restoration-era raunch and rollicking good humor in British playwright Jessica Swale’s meta-backstage comedy coincidentally titled Nell Gwynn.
Yes, there are opulent 17th century trappings galore in this effervescent production directed by Robert Richmond—yards of brocade, whippy-dip curlicue hairdos on men and women, corsets and petticoats, fripperies and fopperies. But there’s also a lot of humor of the “pardon me bloomers” variety, penis jokes, sexual innuendo and just an overall sense of women’s libido unleashed upon an unsuspecting world.
Think Shakespeare in Love with an estrogen money shot. Or The Favourite with even more libertine behavior among the monarch’s court.
There’s so much that’s frankly irresistible about Nell Gwynn—the catnip quality of backstage comedy, the air of female-driven sexuality that is not only allowed to occur without dire consequences, but triumphs (Nell sleeps around and bags the freakin’ king of England!), and a period piece with anachronisms that take the stuffing out of any starch or stiffness.
And then there’s Nell herself (Alison Luff, fresh, fun and a radiant energy source)—whom many may remember as the orange seller and daughter of a bordello owner in Cheapside who became long-standing mistress to Charles II (R.J. Foster, roguish, but also displaying leonine majesty). Plucked from the theater galley by romantic leading man Charles Hart (Quinn Franzen, playing dashing and decent to the hilt), Nell proves a quick study in the art of acting. She’s a natural—seducing audiences with her personal charisma, ready quips and forthright relationship with the audience.
Nell is also a first. Charles II not only reopened the theaters after the Puritan rule, but he also allowed women to play female roles. Before this, only men and boys played women onstage. A juicy example of this is Edward Kynaston (the endlessly inventive Christopher Dinolfo), celebrated for the feminine charms he exudes in classical parts. When Nell starts wearing the breeches, so to speak, Kynaston (who was the subject of his own play, Compleat Female Stage Beauty by Jeffrey Hatcher) retaliates with all the furor of a tragic soprano, flinging himself from pillar to post uttering “No one can play a woman like a man” and concocting outrageous back stories for his now-minor roles, usually a servant with one line.
One of the funniest moments in Nell Gwynn is when Nell talks up what she could bring to the theater (other than her figure, which, true to the times, is prominently on display, including limbs and bosom-bearing at climactic moments.) to theater owner Thomas Killigrew (a marvelously addled Nigel Gore), the acting company and playwright John Dryden (Michael Glenn, winningly at sea playing a writer trying to keep up with the changing mores).
closes March 10, 2019
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“Just think,” she enthuses. “You can write about real women, real emotion, real feminine feelings and they will all be played by a real woman!!” All the men—especially Dryden—seem baffled. Who would want to see that?
Only the company’s seamstress, Nancy (Catherine Flye, her impeccable comic timing as sharp as ever), gets it, nodding that it’s about time women stepped from behind the scenes.
The play also captures the pleasure-loving, giddy times in 17th century London, where people were starved for entertainments and the next big thing in theater. It is hilarious to watch Dryden try to keep pace with the demand, recycling Shakespeare into The Enchanted Island, which features two daughters, Miranda and Dorinda, and a talking mermaid, or giving Romeo and Juliet a more upbeat ending.
“Juliet’s a noodle,” Nell proclaims, skeptical a girl would kill herself over a guy she’s only known a week. And you have to admit, she’s got a point. Nell demands—and gets—meatier roles about women warriors and heroines, not delicate flowers.
Luff and Foster also imbue Nell and Charles with palpable affection toward one another—yes, being a mistress is a business arrangement, but it doesn’t necessarily preclude genuine feelings. The program notes that they were together 18 years (during which Nell frequently returned to the stage) and that among his final instructions were to “make sure poor Nellie doesn’t starve.”
Although Act One seems to end a few times before the curtain actually goes down, it doesn’t affect the roaring good time this production affords. A whopping good story, an opportunity to see an historic figure in a light other than who she sleeps with, an overall atmosphere of merriment—Nell Gwynn has all this and more.
Nell Gwynn by Jessica Swale . Director: Robert Richmond. Featuring: Regina Aquino, Caitlin Cisco, Kevin Collins, Christopher Dinolfo, Catherine Flye, R.J. Foster, Quinn Franzen, Michael Glenn, Nigel Gore, Jeff Keogh, Alison Luff, Alex Mitchell, Zoe Speas. Scenic Design: Tony Cisek. Costume Design: Mariah Anzaldo Hale. Lighting Design: Andrew F. Griffin. Sound Design: Matt Otto. Resident Dramaturg: Michele OIsherow. Production Stage Manager: Diane Healy. Original Music by Kim Sherman. Produced by Folger Theatre . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.
Through March 10 at the Folger Theatre.
Running time 2:30 with intermission.