BWW Review: NELL GWYNN at Folger Theatre - Be Prepared to Laugh and Learn about One of England's First Actresses on The Stage
If I was a producer, I would bring this Folger Theatre production of Nell Gwynn to Broadway. Why you may ask? First, it was a huge success in London. It was commissioned by London's Shakespeare Theatre and opened in 2015. After much success moved to London's West End and won the Lawrence Olivier Award for Best New Comedy in 2016.
Its American premiere was a huge success at Chicago's Shakespeare Theatre in September of 2018. It is now getting its East Coast premiere of Jessica Swale's comedy with music Nell Gwynn at the Folger Theatre on Capitol Hill. The 250 seat Elizabethan Theatre is the perfect location for GWYNN.
The story is just plain amazing. It is such a delight to be educated at the theater. During the rule of England's Cromwell, theater was thought to be frivolous and banned for a number of years. King Charles II returned from being banished to France, regained the throne in 1660 and quickly restored theatre. He legalized two acting companies. He issued patents to his own which was called "The King's Players" which he sponsored. Thomas Killigrew (Nigel Gore) managed "The King's Men". Managing the "The Duke's Players" sponsored by his brother James, then the Duke of York was William Davenant. For reasons still unknown, the King encouraged the two companies to "henceforth permit women to play women's parts."
The play is therefore set in "Restoration" England. We meet "Nell Gwynn" as she is walking down the center aisle of the theater during a performance where she hawks oranges to patrons. She develops a colloquy with the lead actor of the company, Charles Hart (the wonderful Quinn Franzen) about the difficulties of acting. There is no doubt a chemistry between them. Before you know it, Hart begins an elementary acting class with Gwynn and he immediately is spell bound by her natural acting chops Gwynn possesses. Hart recognized talent when he sees it and thus begins the beginning of an amazing acting career for "Nell Gwynn".
To make this play work, it is necessary to have an actress capable of pulling this off...traveling from an orange seller (and possible prostitute) to the most successful actress in England. Thankfully Director Robert Richmond had the good fortune to have Alison Luff audition and according to Richmond she "positively lit up the New York audition room. Allison's authenticity and innate kindness make her a perfect fit for Nell Gwynn, and we are delighted to welcome her to the Folger stage."
Luff is delightful in the title role, adorable in every way. She is sexy, comedic, romantic, and poignant when necessary. She initially reminded me of Carol Burnett. She is an actress who has a great future in store for her.
It is King Charles II who immediately falls for Gwynn when he views her performance from his perch in his box above the stage. It is love at first site. R.J. Foster does a yeoman's task in this part and they two of them have a long romance that began on stage and continued to his palace where he added Gwynn to his many mistresses. He cared dearly for Gwynn and made sure upon his death that she would be taken care of.
Christopher Dinolfo is hysterical as Edward Kynaston who believes truly, he can play a better woman than a woman. His roles become minor and he has a difficult time adjusting.
Playing both Gwynn's mother and her dresser is the wonderful Catherine Flye who has amazing comedic timing.
Playwrights had to begin to write for "real" women on stage. Playwright John Dryden (the wonderful Michael Glenn whose hair was filled with feather pens) was continuously heckled with ideas for new plays which were necessary. He even thought of a play that had a ship hit an iceberg. Does Titanic ring a bell? Dryden milks this part.
Other great characters include Nell's sister Rose (Caitlin Cisco). It has a topflight ensemble.
GWYNN is a lavish production and a thoroughly entertaining spectacle.
I had the pleasure to view Theresa Rebeck's BERNHARDT/HAMLET on Broadway which dealt with the famed actress Sarah Bernhardt having the chutzpah to play the leading role in HAMLET. The play may remind one of two films, "Shakespeare in Love" and "Stealing Beauty". In fact, the program mentions that a film version of Nell Gwynn is in development. I can't wait.
No doubt this story is a rags to riches tale and Gwynn has become a folk heroine in England. And In fact, there is a Nell Gwynn House in Chelsea built in 1937 in an art-deco style which features a statue of Gwynn with a Cavalier King Charles spaniel at her feet which could be London's only statue of a royal mistress.
There is great work in the program by Dramaturg Michele Osherow, a great interview with the playwright Swale and a nice comment from the Director Richmond.
Do not miss this terrific production.