BWW Review: PLAYHOUSE CREATURES Shows How Far We Haven't Come in 400 Years, at CoHo Productions
The gender gap in the entertainment industry is well known. Whether it's on stage or screen, women get significantly fewer roles and are paid significantly less than their male counterparts. This despite the fact that women buy almost 70% of theatre tickets and more than half of all movie tickets.
The roles for women are also limited. You're either young, sexy, and someone to ogle, or you're old and someone to ignore. A recent Time analysis of the careers of more than 6,000 actors found that women's careers go downhill after age 30, while men's careers don't peak until decades later. The virgin and the whore are popular, the mother and the hag, not so much.
None of these shocking statistics is new. Women have been underrepresented and represented in a biased way since they first stepped on the stage, which, at least in England, was about 400 years ago. It's this topic that CoHo productions tackles in April De Angelis's PLAYHOUSE CREATURES.
PLAYHOUSE CREATURES is a fictionalized account of a couple decades of real history and the stories of several real women. If you saw OR, by Liz Duffy Adams, at Third Rail last year, you'll already be familiar with the center character, Nell Gwyn. PLAYHOUSE CREATURES, which is set in 1669-1670, traces Nell's journey from selling oysters outside a London theatre to becoming one of the Restoration's most famous actress and one of King Charles II's most famous mistresses.
Surrounding Nell are four other women who each have a different story of what it's like to be a woman in the theatre. None of these stories has a happy ending. Female actors at the time were often treated as prostitutes and men frequently just barged into the dressing room. While male actors could continue playing the same roles throughout their careers, female actors were constantly being replaced by someone younger. Meanwhile, they were being paid a pittance and only occasionally got the opportunity to play a really good role, mostly courtesy of Shakespeare.
The strength of this production is its cast, which included several people I've not seen before but certainly hope to see again. I especially liked Dainichia Noreault as the headstrong, foul-mouthed, and entirely unapologetic Nell Gwynn and Brenan Dwyer as Mrs. Marshall, who you kind of hate in the beginning but who turns out to have perhaps the most tragic story of all.
But my favorite was Lorraine Bahr as Mrs. Betterton, the older actor who teaches the younger ones while also dealing with the fact that she's being aged out of the theatre, even while her husband, who is the same age, continues to get leading roles (and fancy new costume pieces). I've admired Ms. Bahr's work in the past, and I'm not sure what she has coming up next, but I sincerely hope it's Lady Macbeth. (You'll understand this when you see the play.)
It's also worth mentioning that women make up almost the entire production team of PLAYHOUSE CREATURES. That includes Rachel Kinsman Steck, who wrote much of the music for the show and plays it live on an impressive selection of period-appropriate instruments. And Kaye Blankenship, who has constructed some of my favorite sets of late. This one is a two-story representation of different parts of a theatre, based on London's Drury Lane Theatre.
Overall, PLAYHOUSE CREATURES is both funny and heartbreaking. What's even more heartbreaking is how far we haven't come since then.
PLAYHOUSE CREATURES runs through April 8. I recommend you see it. If you do, take the time to read this resource guide compiled by dramaturg Jessica Dart. It will give you the necessary background to understand the play's context.
More info and tickets here.