Charles the Second returned from France where he had lived in exile and inaugurated the restoration in England. He carried with him new and astonishing ideas; one of these was that women be allowed to perform on stage. The play Compleat Female Stage Beauty (written by Jeffrey Hatcher and directed by Christopher Moore and Gabrielle Soskin), addresses the dilemma of a young man who has been trained from a very early age to play female parts, because up until 1661 women were not allowed to do so. This production opens with a dreadful and over the top camped up rehearsal of the killing scene in Othello. Young “Ned” Kynaston, delightfully played by Thomas Wilkinson-Fullerton, is one such cross dresser.
The first act had many an exegesis on the subject of a man playing a woman who is sometimes playing a man. It was a bit didactic and the make up and costumes were extremely kitch. During the act we established that the main persona was in love with a nobleman, played really well by James Harrington. Kynaston’s dresser, Maria, touchingly performed by Chloe Giddings, was just as infatuated with the actor.
The crisis came when Margaret Hughes (played with skill and great nuance by Emelia Hellman) opened in a rival theatre also performing Othello. The novelty of a woman on stage gave Hughes the advantage as well as full houses. When Nell Gwynn, (delightfully portrayed by Alex Petrachuk) who was the king’s mistress, took a dislike to the theatre owner Thomas Betterton Kynaston’s future was clear.
The second act is a touching portrayal of the lives of actors and it describes the highs and lows of the profession as well as the dangers young actors faced in a violent period of transition. There were moments of transcendent drama’ as when Kynaston was trying to perform lines as a man, and reverted in the process to the mincing and camp mannerisms of his transvestite persona.
The second act demonstrated that the gender identity which society imposes, is as ethereal and delicate as gossamer, and can be cruelly and sometimes easily exchanged and altered. Persephone Productions consistently takes risks and mounts plays with young actors. They have produced an intriguing work with great merit about a fascination time of great change in history and art.
Compleat Female Stage Beauty is at Calixa-Lavallée (3819, rue Calixa-Lavallée) from October 21 to October 24 at 8 p.m. and October 25 at 2 p.m. Click HERE for tickets.