Throughout history, in male dominated societies, a wink, a smile, a quick wit and good looks have allowed women from all classes to rise in rank and power. One such scrappy climber was Nell Gwynn. Her story is being told in a rollicking and thoroughly entertaining new comedy, Nell Gwynn by Jessica Swale, receiving its North American premiere at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater now through November 4.
When the monarchy in England was restored under King Charles, this fun loving ruler re-opened the theaters which had been closed by the Puritans. He also allowed women to act on the British stage for the first time, causing a sensation. Nell Gwynn, a poor girl from the wrong side of town, and the daughter of a madam who raised her in a bawdy house, was plucked from selling oranges in the Drury Lane Theater by actor Charles Hart. Under his tutelage, she became one of the foremost actresses of the English theater. When she subsequently caught the eye of the king, she became his most beloved mistress. As one of the common people who made good, she was also a favorite of the general public.
We know just enough facts about Nell to be intrigued by her. At the same time, what we don’t know about her leaves lots of room for a clever playwright to fill in the gaps. For the most part, playwright Jessica Swale has very cleverly imagined the specifics of the world around her and created a top notch entertainment
The play opens with Nell bantering with a heckler in the theater while she is selling oranges, displaying the sharpest wit we hear from her all evening. After that, she is more often led through the story by circumstance rather than propelling it. Nell was, after all, streetwise but otherwise uneducated, apolitical, and not driven by any great ambition. This fictional Nell isn’t any different. So when the play fall short, it’s because Ms. Swale eschews opportunities to let Nell’s ambitions drive the action.
Scarlett Strallen as Nell recreates her starring performance from the West End world premiere production. She is as beautiful, playful, empathetic, and engaging a leading lady as the popular star she portrays. But as winning as she is, thanks to the writing, she often must rely on smiling and batting her eyes when she isn’t given enough proactive things to say or do.
When the leading actor of the company, Charles Hart, played with great flair by and appeal by John Tufts, invites young Nell to learn acting from him, he teaches her to assume the various poses or “attitudes” which were used by actors in those days to convey recognizable emotional states. It turns out that Nell is a natural, who doesn’t need that kind of artifice to entertain. But Nell doesn’t campaign to change the style of acting in her time, which might have been a more interesting character choice.
The one who really understands what acting is about, in a modern psychological sense, is Edward Kenaston, played with wonderful high style by David Bedella. He’s the actor in the King’s Company who normally plays the girls parts, and who is losing his place to real female actresses like Nell. He brings the Chicago Shakes house down when he tries to stuff Stanislavsky-esque motivations into the externalized world of Restoration comedy performance style.
Nell also isn’t a social climber or gold digger. When King Charles sets out to have her as his mistress, she resists him at first, being happy to remain a simple player. Since this Nell isn’t out to capture the heart of the king, this is also makes her seem rather passive at first. Things do change, however, when she gets pregnant and fights to protect her position. She works to push aside Charles’s French mistress by performing a wonderfully funny musical number sending up both her nationality and her penchant for overly large hats, singing and dancing beneath a hat so large it has to be carried by two other people.
As King Charles, Timothy Edward Kane gives a complex and subtle performance. His comic touch is smart and light, like a seventeenth century Frasier. He’s also deeply moving as a man in a position of power which is, at times, as much a social cage for him as Nell’s low class status would be without him. When he professes his love for Nell as a man, not a king, it is indeed a touching moment.
The rest of the cast is, as usual on the Chicago Shakes stage, an abundance of acting riches. Character actor stalwart Larry Yando as Lord Arlington, advisor to Charles, provides much of the conflict which adds tension to the story. Christopher Sheard is desperately funny as the playwright John Dryden, who is constantly cribbing Shakespeare for plot ideas. Hollis Resnik, herself genuine Chicago acting royalty, steals her scenes in the double role of Nell’s bottom dwelling prostitute mother and Charles’s deeply frustrated, Portugese speaking queen. Emily Gardner Xu Hall plays not one but two of Charles’s other mistress, with equal aplomb. Bret Tuomi as the manager of the King’s Company captures the timeless frustrations of running a theater. Emma Ladji is Nell’s earnest sister, Rose. Absolutely not to be missed is Natalie West as Nell’s thick headed dresser and confidant, Nancy. Her deliberately clueless, deadpan delivery is brilliantly understated and absolutely hysterical comedic genius.
The sumptuous sets and costumes are by Hugh Durrant, recreating his London designs, effectively lit by Greg Hofmann. Rick Jarvie’s superlative period wigs are, as usual, the fine icing on the design cake. The sprightly choreography by Amber Mak and period styled music by Nigel Hess under the fine musical direction of Jermaine Hill keep the spirit lively. All is deftly co-ordinated by director Christopher Luscombe, who directed the original London production. His aesthetic is right at home on the Chicago Shakes stage, filling it as he does with the spirited mix of heart, humor, movement, pageantry, and consistently fine acting one always expects from this company.
This Nell Gwynn will raise your spirits and capture your heart. I hope Artistic Director Barbara Gaines, Creative Producer Rick Boynton, and Executive Director Criss Henderson are pursuing plans to move this production intact to Broadway after its Chicago run. But in case not, it’s worth the trip from wherever you are to see it here while you can.