“Just think,” says our heroine to the playwright John Dryden. “You can write about real women, real emotion, real feminine feelings and they will all be played by a real woman!!” The men glance at one another in quizzical, wide-eyed shock: who on earth would want to see that?
Well, our Nellie knows. We all do. After all, wink, it’s the year of the woman: 1665.
Nell Gwynn— a baroque, bawdy, but all-too-knowing buffet of a comedy— has just opened at the Folger Theatre, and like its heroine (and despite its flaws) is ultimately irresistible. First staged at the Globe in 2015, and then on London’s West End, this Olivier Award-winning comedy by Jessica Swale finally wins its first East-Coast showing, with sumptuous production values, terrific performances and Direction by Robert Richmond, and enough whiplash and expertly-timed laughs to send any miserable old millennial home with a smile.
The play celebrates one of the first actresses on the English stage, the legendary Nell Gwynn, and positions her firmly as a 21st century voice. As an actress, she wants meatier parts— “that Juliet, she’s a noodle!”- she wants to play fighters and have personal and sexual autonomy, as well as love.
The historical recap: The Puritan Commonwealth is over, and with the restoration of the monarchy, came the restoration of the theater, and— for the first time— the appearance of real women on the stage (female roles had formerly been played by boys and young men). Our Nellie, a prostitute-turned-theatre-concessions-hawker, is spotted by actor Charles Hart as a possible talent; emerges to become one of the best-loved performers of the Restoration stage, and eventually becomes the favored mistress (and only true love) of the reigning king, Charles II.
The improbable rags-to-riches tale is historical fact, yet any treatment of Nell’s life is bound to falter when trying to imagine how all the pieces fit together. Swales’ script truly sparkles when evoking the theater milieu, yet loses some of its luster in the palace scenes reflecting Nell’s relationship with the King (R. J. Foster) and other members of the court. As Nell, Alison Luff herself never falters: she’s alternately tart, vulnerable, cocky, commanding, and a comic delight in Nell’s musical performance pieces (music by Kim Sherman). She is awesomely matched in Act One by Quinn Franzen as her actor/mentor/lover Charles Hart, who hits so many right notes from vanity to charm to vulnerability to yearning love that it is sheer pleasure to watch the pair perform.
In fact, playwright and director generously allow each cast member a shining moment or two, but standouts include Christopher Dinolfo as Edward Kynestan, an actor who specialized in female roles prior to the allowance of women on the stage, and whose comic rivalry with Nell prompts two of the most hilarious set-pieces of the night. Equally memorable is Catherine Flye in a dual role as Nell’s alcoholic mother and as Nancy, the theatre seamstress who also takes her over-the-top turn on the stage. The ensemble as a whole is quite glorious to watch.
Also glorious is the production itself. The Folger Theater offers more than a few challenges for set design, yet Tony Cisek works with the architecture so seamlessly that it may be hard to tell what was built for this show and what was not. From the moment we enter and see the luxurious crimson curtains, we know we are in for a visually rich treat. With minimal effort we are transported from a theatre, to the back stage, and to a King’s palace, all without skimping on details – perhaps one of the best sets I have seen at the Folger.
Mariah Anzaldo Hale’s costumes are sumptuous, detailed, and overtly theatrical; the use of color is to be applauded and each character is instantly defined when they enter a scene. On a raised stage such as at the Folger, even the footwear is at eye level for a large portion of the audience and there, too, Hale delivers treats.
The only design I had a mild disagreement with was Matt Otto’s sound. The background sound cues were wonderful and effective from the reactions of invisible audiences to scene setting music brought in so subtly one was barely aware it was happening. The issue I had was the music played over the scene changes. Every show has a rhythm and a pace that carries the audience member along for the journey, but often that rhythm was interrupted for me. The scene changes are extremely stylized (which I usually love) but were too slow and underscored with overly dramatic music, especially in Act I, at least for my tastes. However, I don’t think that should stop anyone from attending this magnificent production.
Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes with one intermission
Nell Gwynn plays through March 10, 2019 at Folger Theatre in the Folger Shakespeare Library— 201 E. Capitol Street SE in Washington DC. For tickets call the box office at (202) 544-7077 or purchase them online.